Orca population remains uncertain on census day

The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year, but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.

J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb. Photo: Ken Balcomb, taken under U.S. and Canadian permits
J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, under U.S. and Canadian permits

For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident pods.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to get a complete count until September, he told me.

Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups during multiple encounters.

“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”

As with this year, the census could not be completed at this time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last year. See Water Ways, July 1, 2015.

As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an early indication of their condition, but his requests have been denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase a membership in the Center for Whale Research.

On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open ocean.

Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this information:

“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49 were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera. The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls, surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”

The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of the chart.

This year's catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year's fishery did not begin until April 26. Graphic: Canadian DFO
This year’s catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year’s fishery did not begin until April 26.
Graphic: Canadian DFO

Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See 2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).

Considering the apparent difference between the number of chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.

Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months. Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in September.

2 thoughts on “Orca population remains uncertain on census day

  1. Orcas are not “somebody”. This is part of the humanizing of animals to gain or add to an agenda. Probably helps in fundraising as well.

    1. Humanity bickers over the semantics of whether or not to describe an animal as “somebody”, while the environmental pressures on these wonderful animals put them in threat of extinction. Let us focus on what we can do to prevent that from happening.

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