Three more southern resident orcas declared dead, dropping population to 73

WatchThe southern resident orca population is now down to 73. The U.S. based Center for Whale Research confirmed Tuesday that three whales are dead. As Mary Griffin reports, despite the latest deaths, the orcas may be having a good summer.

The southern resident orca population is now down to 73, after confirmation that three are dead.

The U.S.-based Center for Whale Research tracks the births and deaths of the orcas. 

Founder Ken Balcomb said only after each whale was recorded as missing did they determine they were dead.

“We make this determination by going out and photographing everybody in the pod, in the groups. And we’ve done it redundantly, many times. And our colleagues in Canada do likewise.  And we see who’s missing. And if they are missing from a family they should be in, then we write them off as deceased,” Balcomb said.

Each pod, J, K, and L, have suffered a loss;  a female J17, and two males, K25, and L84.   Marine biologist, Anna Hall, said the news is troubling because they represent the future of the species.

“The males and female were near the average lifespan for southern resident orcas males and females. but nevertheless, three at once is very disheartening,” Hall said.

J17 was nearing the end of her reproductive life, but she could have carried at least one more calf. She was also the mother of J35, the orca who carried her dead calf for 17 days.

Drone footage released in May demonstrated J17’s weight loss since 2015.  And Balcomb said the loss of two males is significant to the whales’ future.

“Last year I said it’s the time to act. Now we’re past the time to act. So, do we just do nothing? Or do we just cross our fingers and act anyway because it’s going to save the salmon, save the forest? It’s all connected. That was your indicator.  And that’s the top predator. And you’re going to let them go?  No. That’s ridiculous,” Balcomb said.

The last sighting of the pods took place this morning at Swiftsure Bank off Port Renfrew.  Whale watchers say there is a reason they’re there. 

Prince of Whales Skipper Mark Malleson said the pods appear to be feeding on chinook there. The population feeds primarily on salmon, specializing on Chinook and Chum.

“They are finding it’s really good feeding out off the outer coast. Fishing is good right now. It’s a good year. So, as much as it’s a shame we’ve lost some of these animals.  You may see some new calves in a year and a half from now. Maybe two years. a few more. I’d like to think so,” Malleson said.

But scientists remain concerned about the ability of the endangered population to recover from this latest blow.

Mary GriffinMary Griffin

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