Category Archives: Marine mammals

Orca protection bill stumbles and dies on state Senate floor

State legislation that would increase protection for Puget Sound’s killer whales died this week amidst confusing action on the Senate floor.

Now, orca advocates are pushing a narrower bill approved by the House to limit remote-controlled aircraft around whales, while they also hope for a $3-million budget appropriation to support other orca protection measures.

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident killer whale groups, has recently spent time in the San Juan Islands.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, taken under federal permits: NMFS:15569-01, DFO SARA: 388.

Whether people should be allowed to fly a drone around the endangered Southern Resident orcas seems to be the issue stirring up the most attention in the Legislature — although it is a small part of the overall effort.

Current law prohibits a “vessel or other object” from approaching the Southern Residents closer than 200 yards. Using that language, state fisheries enforcement officers have issued at least two citations to people flying their drones over orcas in the San Juan Islands, according to Sgt. Russ Mullins of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In one case filed in 2015, a Mercer Island photographer appealed the citation, saying the law does not apply to drones. The prosecutor in San Juan County eventually dropped the case while requesting a legal clarification from the state Attorney General’s Office.

The opinion from the AG’s Office says the 200-yard limitation for “other objects” should apply to drones flying over the killer whales. The final word, however, would need to come from a judge in a state court.

To eliminate any confusion, Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, last year introduced a bill that would prohibit “unmanned aerial systems” from approaching orcas closer than 200 yards in any direction. The one exception would be if the drone inadvertently flies over the whales while traveling to an unrelated destination. See info for HB 1031.

“My intention is to keep drones away from an icon of our state and to prevent the almost harassment, as some people in my district feel, of our orca whales,” Rep. Lytton testified after submitting her bill.

The concern is not so much about one or two drones, although any could crash and harm a whale, Sgt. Mullins told me. But if the rules do not keep drones away from the whales, it will be only a matter of time before lots and lots of whale watchers bring their drones out to photograph the orcas up close while watching from a boat.

“There is already enough drama and confusion out there,” he said. “We don’t need someone driving his boat as well as his drone around these whales.”

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, said they would prefer to broaden the legislation to keep drones from operating around any threatened and endangered species. But no changes have been made so far, perhaps because the specific law being revised is focused entirely on the protection of killer whales.

The bill to protect orcas from drones passed the House last week on a vote of 67 to 31, with all Democrats in support of the legislation along with about a third of the House Republicans.

In the Senate, Democrats decided to take a broader approach to the issue of orca protection. Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, introduced a bill to complement Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed orca protection and restoration initiative.

The legislation, SB 6268, would more than double the number of marine patrols around the orcas, essentially protecting the animals from aggressive boaters and drone operators anytime the whales are in Puget Sound. Studies have shown that the mere presence of patrol boats leads to greater compliance with the rules, which are designed to allow the whales to find food more easily and to engage in more normal social interactions. The patrols also serve to educate boaters about how to act around the whales.

The cost for the nearly full-time patrols is estimated at about $475,000 per year. If the patrols help save the whales from extinction, it would allow a continuation of the multi-million-dollar tourism industry, not to mention the ecological importance of orcas and the joy that people experience when seeing whales.

Other provisions of the bill would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots anytime they come within 400 yards of a Southern Resident orca. Also included are proposed studies to see how human-generated noise affects the orcas, along with at least one meeting to better coordinate protection and recovery strategies between Washington state and British Columbia in Canada.

The Senate bill appeared to be sailing through the Legislature until Wednesday — the last day to approve bills that originated in the Senate. Democrats were anxious about approving two bills before the end of the day — one dealing with student debt and the other with basic education funding. They thought the so-called Orca Protection Act would be approved with barely a bump in the road.

The first amendment offered to the orca bill was the “ominously numbered amendment 666,” as Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib dubbed it while calling on the amendment’s author, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside. The hostile amendment would remove any prohibition against using drones around killer whales.

“The orcas are a really a big tourism attraction in the Puget Sound,” Honeyford told the chamber. “This would allow those tourists who have unmanned aircraft or drones or whatever you want to call them to be able to fly them. They are electric, and they are quiet, and they can take pictures. I believe it would be a great increase in tourism.”

With an eye toward the clock, the Democrats decided not to fight the amendment. They knew that the House bill was coming later to deal with drones, and they apparently hoped to get quick approval of the Orca Protection Act. After all, everyone was still speaking in favor of it.

As you can see in the video above, the Democrats were talking fast. But Republicans along with Sen. Tim Sheldon, a right-leaning Democrat from Hoodsport, appeared to be taking their time. Democrats finally gave up and pulled the bill, essentially killing it for this year.

The original bill to limit drones around the orcas, which originated in the House, is still alive after House passage. It is scheduled to be heard on Feb. 20 by the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment & Technology.

Some aspects of the Senate bill, such as the extra patrols around the orcas, could be implemented through the budget, according to Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The House bill is titled, “Concerning the use of unmanned aerial systems near certain protected marine species.” That title does not leave much leeway to resuscitate the Senate bill by heavily amending the House bill, Sen. Rolfes told me.

Still, other efforts to protect the orcas could be accomplished with legislative funding of Gov. Inslee’s Southern Resident killer whale recovery program. He is seeking $3 million from the general fund for the next two years.

The governor’s proposal goes well beyond the idea of extra patrols around the whales. Included is increased hatchery production of chinook salmon, the orcas’ primary food; restoration of chinook salmon habitat in streams and estuaries; and steps to reduce seal and sea lion predation on chinook, which are also on the Endangered Species List.

Inslee’s budget proposal also calls for developing oil spill plans to help the orcas in an emergency, since many experts believe that an oil spill could drive the whales to extinction faster than any other problem they face.

“Funding orca recovery is an urgent issue that cannot wait another legislative session,” said Mindy Roberts, director of People for Puget Sound, a division of Washington Environmental Council. “Our region knows all too well the pressures the orcas face. They are starving because they don’t have enough salmon to feed on; toxics in their bodies are released when they go hungry; and vessels are interfering with their abilities to feed and communicate.”

As she told me in an email, “We will be looking for ways to provide emergency funding for short-term solutions identified in the bills that died and in the governor’s budget proposal.”

Does new ‘mother ship’ portend increased whaling by Japan?

The Japanese government is considering the replacement of the “mother ship” in its fleet of whaling vessels, as part of a potential expansion of whaling in the Antarctic.

Nisshin Maru, Japan’s whaling factory ship
Photo: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

The newspaper Japan Times today received confirmation that the Japanese Fishing Agency has requested the equivalent of $910,000 to study the future of commercial whaling. If approved, the study would consider ideas for replacing the 30-year-old Nisshin Maru, best known as the factory ship used for processing whale meat. Japanese officials collect certain information about the whales and call it scientific research.

Anti-whaling activists, including Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, reacted harshly to the news, saying the study is a sign that the Japanese government not only intends to keep slaughtering whales but may be on the verge of expanding commercial operations.

“I will say, that if this replacement floating slaughter house — this Cetacean Death Star — is built and if it returns to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary with an increased quota, it will be strongly, passionately and aggressively opposed,” Watson wrote in a Facebook post. “The Whale Wars is not over.”

After problems with finding and pursuing the Japanese whalers last year, Sea Shepherd did not send any ships into battle this year. It was the first time in 12 years that Sea Shepherd has failed to confront the whalers in the Southern Ocean — except for 2014 when the Japanese whalers called off the hunt.

“What we discovered,” Watson said in a news release last August, “is that Japan is now employing military surveillance to watch Sea Shepherd ship movements in real time by satellite, and if they know where our ships are at any given moment, they can easily avoid us…. We cannot compete with their military-grade technology.”

Watson said he has also heard that the Japanese military may be sent to protect the whalers if Sea Shepherd tries to stop them.

Sea Shepherd is not giving up its efforts to protect the whales in the Southern Ocean, Watson stressed. Instead, the organization will develop new tactics while calling on the Australian government to do more to protect the whales.

In December, countries in the European Union and 12 other nations expressed their opposition to the whaling taking place in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, a protected area established by the International Whaling Commission. Australia and New Zealand, but not the United States, are among the signatories.

The “Joint statement against whaling” points out that the International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that the Japanese whaling did not meet the basic requirements for scientific studies. Legitimate research is one of the few exemptions that allow the killing of whales under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

The Japanese called off the whaling the following summer in Antarctica but started it up again the next year under a new whaling plan submitted to the International Whaling Commission. The Japanese government said it would never again place itself under the jurisdiction of the international court.

The IWC has since questioned the new whaling plans and has adopted two resolutions calling on the Japanese to halt whaling until the new scientific plan can be reviewed by the Scientific Committee of the IWC. Japan objected to the process on procedural grounds in a position statement and ignored the international posture, including the latest IWC resolution (16-2) in 2016.

Plans to replace or overhaul the Nisshin Maru were first floated in 2005, according to sources quoted in Japan News. Nothing happened, however, until this year when the idea was resurrected by pro-whaling lawmakers in Japan.

The ship was built in 1987 as a trawler and converted to a whale processor in 1991. Whales harpooned by smaller vessels can be pulled up a gangway to the deck for slaughter. Up to 1,200 tons of meat can be stored in a freezer below decks, according to the newspaper.

“Even though the ship has been painted over, rust that can’t be hidden stands out,” said an observer quoted in Japan News. “It is old, aged nearly 100 in human years.”

Some reports said Japanese officials want a ship that could operate quicker on the high seas to evade Sea Shepherd’s aggressive actions, which they consider to be terrorism.

About 100 people were said to be on board the Nisshin Maru in November when the ship departed from Japan’s Innoshima island, Hiroshima Prefecture, heading for the Southern Ocean. The goal is to hunt up to 333 minke whales, a quota established by the Japanese government with no outside approval.

Pesticides and salmon: Can we see a light at the end of the tunnel?

Once again, the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined in official findings that three common pesticides — chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion — raise the risk of extinction for threatened and endangered salmon.

A crop duster sprays pesticide on a field near an irrigation ditch.
Photo: NOAA/USFWS

By extension, for the first time, the agency also concluded that those same pesticides threaten Puget Sound’s endangered orca population by putting their prey — chinook and other salmon — at risk.

This politically and legally charged issue — which has been around for more than 15 years — has gone beyond a debate over potential harm from pesticides. It also raises uncomfortable questions about whether our society will follow science as we try to solve environmental problems.

The immediate finding of “jeopardy” — meaning that the three pesticides pose a risk of extinction — comes in a biological opinion (PDF 415.6 mb) that is more than 3,700 pages long and covers not just salmon but, for the first time, dozens of other marine species on the Endangered Species List.

The report follows a scientific methodology for assessing the effects of pesticides that arises from suggestions by the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS report (PDF 14.2 mb) attempted to reconcile differing methods of assessing risk that had been used by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS.

EPA’s original assessment raised no concerns about the effect of these pesticides on the survival of salmon populations. The original lawsuit by environmental groups forced the EPA to “consult” with NMFS, as required by the Endangered Species Act. The result was the first jeopardy finding in 2008. For background, see Water Ways, Aug. 11, 2008, in which I reported that the long wait for regulatory action on pesticides may be about over. Little did I know.

The biological opinion, or BiOp for short, examines both the direct harms to species exposed to pesticides — such as effects on behavior, reproduction and immune function — as well as indirect effects — such as whether the pesticides wipe out insects needed for the fish to eat.

The new BiOp is considered a pilot study for future pesticide assessments.

“Notably,” states the document, “this Opinion represents the first consultation using newly developed approaches and the first to assess all listed species throughout the U.S., its territories, and protectorates. Future Opinions regarding pesticides may utilize different analyses and approaches as the interagency consultation effort proceeds.”

The next step is for the EPA to restrict the use of the pesticides to reduce the risks for salmon and other species. Among suggested measures, the BiOp says those who use pesticides must limit the total amount of chemicals applied in high-risk areas, such as streams. No-spray buffers or similar alternatives are suggested.

Interim no-spray buffers, established by the courts, will remain in effect until the EPA takes action. The interim buffers were put on, taken off, and are back on as a result of the lengthy court battle between the agencies and environmental groups. Pesticide manufacturers have weighed in, arguing about the need for pesticides without undue restrictions.

The Trump administration asked the court for a two-year delay in the release of the BiOp, but NMFS ultimately met the deadline when the judge failed to rule on the request in time to make a difference.

I discussed some of the ongoing intrigue and a bit of history in a Water Ways post last August, after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reversed course on an impending ban on chlorpyrifos. The proposed ban, approved during the Obama administration, came in response to studies that showed how the chemical could adversely affect children’s brains.

Although it took legal action to get to this point, agency and independent scientists have worked together to study the problem and come up with solutions. The question now is whether policymakers and politicians will take reasonable steps to reduce the risks based upon these findings, which are complex, evolving and rarely definitive for all time.

As I was going back through the blog posts I’ve written about pesticides, I recalled that President George W. Bush wanted to limit scientific consultations in an effort to streamline the regulatory process — much as President Trump’s people are doing today. Check out Water Ways from March 4, 2009, which shows a video of President Obama reversing the Bush policy and speaking out for increased input from scientists.

When it comes to human health and the environment, it is good to remember that without the work of scientists, many species throughout the world would have been wiped out long ago. Human cancer, disease and brain impairment would be far worse today without regulations based on scientific findings. Science can tell us about the risk of pesticides and other threats to salmon and orcas. But knowledge is not enough. People must take reasonable actions to protect themselves and the environment. And so the story goes on.

Last week, Earthjustice, which represents environmental groups in the legal battle, released the biological opinion, which had been sent by NOAA as part of the legal case. The group posted links to the document and related information in a news release. As far as I know, nobody in the Trump administration has spoken about the findings.

Amusing Monday: Bainbridge baker designs cakes with imagination

Baker Christine Chapman of Bainbridge Island creates fanciful as well as fancy cakes in her home kitchen, the headquarters for a one-person business known as Crumbs Cakery.

“Becoming Aquatic” // Source: Christine Chapman

A few photos of her sculptured cakes designed on water themes are shown on this page.

A native of Austria, Christine was trained as a construction engineer and spent the early part of her career working for architectural firms in Austria and Germany. She jokes that some of her more elaborate cakes, such as a 2.5-foot Lego Batman cake, require a bit of structural design.

Christine’s life changed course when she met her future husband, an investor, at a wedding in Austria. They eventually moved to California for a short time before deciding to raise their family on Bainbridge Island, moving there in 2001.

“Swim Olivia” // Source: Christine Chapman

Her early cake-baking projects were done for her children, who loved cakes that looked like real objects, sometimes telling a story.

“The first cake I ever made was an airplane cake,” Christine told me. “It was very simple.”

For the most part, she is a self-taught baker. In 2012, Washington’s new Cottage Foods Law went into effect, allowing people to sell products made in home kitchens — provided the sales were direct to consumers.

“I thought this would work, so in 2014 I started my official business with a website, and I started to get some cakes out there,” she said.

Since then, she has made about 200 cakes — from collections of cupcakes to large wedding cakes to a variety of sculpted cakes. Through the years, she has studied cookbooks and taken a few classes, some online and some in person.

“Otter” // Source: Christine Chapman

“I’m still learning with every single cake,” she said, adding that she loves working with customers and leaning on her creativity to turn their ideas and color schemes into works of art. One or more sketches usually precedes the baking itself.

The first cake shown on this page combines a book with a variety of sea creatures. The cake was created for a young woman graduating from a creative-writing school, according to Christine. For her final thesis, the woman wrote about her relationship to marine life and tide pools. She titled the paper “Becoming Aquatic,” and that became the title for the cake.

“Great Blue Heron” // Source: Christine Chapman

The second cake, “Swim Olivia,” was a birthday cake for a swimmer name Olivia who was involved in a swim team. Christine started with a photo of the person diving into the water.

The otter cake is one of many similar cakes that Christine made through the years for fundraisers at Ordway Elementary School, which her children attended. The great blue heron cake was made for a fundraiser for West Sound Wildlife Center.

Christine says she is still having a lot of fun baking the cakes and intends to stay busy with the work. Other cakes she has made can be seen on her Gallery webpage, and she can be reached through her contact page.

Previous blog posts on Water Ways about water-related cakes:

Remembering an unusual visit from orcas some 20 years ago

It was 20 years ago that people living on Dyes Inlet and in the surrounding community enjoyed a rare visit from 19 killer whales. The 19 orcas, all members of L-pod, stayed an entire month in one place, something never seen before or since. The whales arrived on Oct. 20 and left on Nov. 19.


Orca Audio Slideshow (Needs Flash)

For me, it was a time of awakening to the amazing social structure of Southern Resident killer whales. I had been writing about orcas for years, but I never got to know the individual whales like I did in the fall of 1997.

It was inspiring to learn how their close-knit families generally stay together for life, how orca relatives often help out with caring for the young, how they work together to find and capture food.

I owe much to Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Jodi Smith, two young researchers who observed the whales for most of the month the orcas were in Dyes Inlet. Kelley describes his observations in the slideshow on this page. He made the recording on the 10th anniversary of the Dyes Inlet visit. Just click on the whale image above.

I wrote a brief summary of the event in a Kitsap Sun story on Oct. 20, 2007.

The year 1997 was close to the high point for the Southern Resident population, which grew to 98 animals. It took about 25 years to reach that number after a large segment of the population was captured and taken away for aquariums. As the Southern Resident population declined after 1997, the Southern Residents were proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In 2005, they were declared an endangered species. Today, their numbers have declined to 76, the lowest number in 30 years.

Killer whale experts talk about how orcas in the wild can live as long as humans given the right conditions. Yet things have not been going well for the Southern Residents. Of the 19 whales that visited Dyes Inlet 20 years ago, seven orcas are still alive:

  • L-47, a 43-year-old female named Marina, who has three offspring and two grand-offspring. The two oldest were with her in Dyes Inlet, and a younger calf, L-115 named Mystic, was born in 2010.
  • L-83, a 27-year-old female named Moonlight. She is the oldest daughter of L-47 (Marina) and had her first offspring, L-110 named Midnight, in 2007.
  • L-91, a 22-year-old female named Muncher. She is the second daughter of L-47 (Marina). In 2015, Muncher had an offspring of her own, L-122, a male named Magic.
  • L-90, a 24-year-old female named Ballena who was 4 years old in Dyes Inlet with her mother Baba (L-26), sister Rascal (L-60) and brother Hugo (L-71). Her mother died in 2013, her sister in 2002 and brother in 2006.
  • L-92, a 22-year-old male named Crewser who was 2 years old when he was in Dyes Inlet with his mom, L-60 named Rascal, who died in 2002. Now Crewser is often seen with his aunt, Ballena (L-90).
  • L-55, a 40-year-old female named Nugget. Her oldest offspring, L-82 named Kasatka, was with her in Dyes Inlet along with her 1-year-old calf, L-96, who died a short time after leaving Dyes Inlet. Her next calf, Lapis (L-103), was born in 2003, followed by Takoda (L-109) in 2007 and Jade (L-118) in 2011. All are females except Takoda and the baby who died at a year old. Lapis had her first calf, L-123 named Lazuli, in 2015.
  • L-82, a 27-year-old female named Kasatka who was 7 years old when she was with her mom and baby brother in Dyes Inlet. Kasatka had her first offspring, Finn (L-116), a male, in 2010, making Nugget a grandmother.

The Dyes Inlet experience is something I will never forget, and I know many other people in the Puget Sound region feel the same way. I would be happy to publish stories from those who would like to share their experiences. Feel free to write something in the comments field below.

One of my favorite memories from that time was going out at night in a boat on Dyes Inlet with researcher Jodi Smith. All the other boats had gone home. The air was cold and quiet. Jody dropped a hydrophone down into the water, and the speaker on the boat burst forth with all kinds of pops and screeches coming from the whales. You can read the story I wrote in the Kitsap Sun archives and listen to the recording we made that night (below).

      1. Whales in Dyes Inlet

During that time in 1997, I personally got to know some of the leading marine mammal experts in our region. I even developed some ever-lasting friendships. While I wish that things would go better for our beloved orcas, I am thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day, for that time 20 years ago.

Orcas and seals compete for a limited number of chinook salmon

It’s always been troubling to me that the Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, have struggled to maintain their population, while other fish-eating resident orcas seem to be doing much better.

Killer whale chases a chinook salmon
Photo: John Durbin, Holly Fearnbach, Lance Barrett-Lennard

Now several researchers have analyzed the energy needs of all the seals, sea lions and killer whales that eat chinook salmon along the West Coast, from California to Alaska. The study provides a possible explanation, one that is consistent with what many scientists have suspected all along. Here’s how I explained it in a story written for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

“Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are waiting at the end of a long food line for a meal of chinook salmon — basically the only food they really want to eat.

“Ahead of them in the line are hundreds of salmon-craving killer whales in Alaska and British Columbia. Even farther ahead are thousands of seals and sea lions that eat young chinook before the fish have a chance to grow to a suitable size for orcas.”

My story contains plenty of numbers to explain what this is all about.

This issue of competition for food is not a simple one to discuss or resolve. But the new paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, adds an important perspective when trying to answer the question: “Do we have too few salmon or too many marine mammals?”

From a historical viewpoint, the answer must be that we have too few salmon. But from a management perspective, we might have to conclude that the ecosystem is out of balance and that we have been restoring some marine mammal populations faster than we are restoring the salmon that they eat.

In an intriguing study published in March in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution (PDF 840 kb), a group of West Coast researchers investigated whether it is better to recover populations of prey species first, followed by predator species, or if it is better to recover predator species first, followed by prey species.

Protecting predators first — which is usually the way humans do things — may slow the growth of prey species or even trigger a population decline, the report says. That creates a problem for predators that specialize in that one kind of prey as well as for those that have no access to alternative prey.

It may seem logical to rebuild the prey species first, the authors say. But, with some exceptions, recovering prey species first causes the combined predator and prey populations to peak at high levels that are unsustainable in the overall ecosystem.

“In the real world,” the paper states, “transient dynamics like these that result from eruptions of prey populations can lead to surprising cascades of ecological interactions and complex but often mismatched management responses.”

The authors conclude that the fastest way to restore depressed populations is through synchronous recovery of predators and prey by carefully rebuilding two or more populations at the same time.

Management tactics may include culling predators even before optimal population numbers are reached. Such actions require careful study, as culling may produce unexpected consequences, according to the report.

Other options include protecting multiple species within protected geographic or marine areas or focusing on single species by protecting select habitats or reducing human exploitation.

For Southern Resident killer whales, the question will be whether populations of other marine mammals — particularly harbor seals in Puget Sound —should be controlled. If so, how would people go about doing that?

One related issue that needs more study is the effect that transient killer whales are having on the Salish Sea population of seals and sea lions. As the Southern Residents spend less time searching for chinook salmon in the inland waterway, the seal-eating transients are being spotted more and more by people along the shores of Puget Sound.

Some studies estimate that the transients need an average of one to two seals each day to maintain their energy needs, although we know these whales also eat smaller sea otters and larger California and Steller sea lions, as well as an occasional gray whale.

Are the transients culling the population of harbor seals in Puget Sound or at least limiting their growth? Even before the transients were showing up frequently, biologists were telling us that the overall harbor seal population appeared to be peaking and perhaps declining.

It would be interesting to create a future-looking computer model that could account for populations of salmon and marine mammals under various scenarios — including possible management actions by humans and the ongoing predation by transient killer whales.

If we want to keep things more natural while helping out the Southern Residents, maybe somebody could come up with a strategy to attract and maintain a healthy population of seal-eating transient orcas within the Salish Sea.

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”

Southern Resident orcas make it back to Puget Sound in good condition

Killer whale observers were gleefully surprised this week when all three pods of Southern Resident orcas came into the Salish Sea — and all were in reasonably good shape.

K-25, a 26-year-old male orca named Scoter, is seen breaching Monday when a large group of Southern Residents arrived in the Salish Sea.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

Remember, these same whales have been missing from Puget Sound for practically the entire summer — a period when they traditionally remain in and around the San Juan Islands while feasting on salmon. This summer has generated concern among those who understand the ways of whales. Some observers have feared that the orcas, wherever they were, might not be getting enough to eat (Water Ways, Aug. 18).

That fear has largely disappeared, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who has been studying these animals for more than 40 years.

“There were no fat whales among them,” Ken told me, “but they had to be finding something (to eat) out there.”

Ken’s only concern was with a couple of young calves, 2 and 3 years old. They remain small for their age. (Ken calls them “runts.”) They probably have not received complete nutrition, given that the whales don’t seem to be finding chinook salmon in their regular feeding grounds.

“We know that there is a problem with juvenile and infant survival,” Ken said, but there is hope that these calves will make it.

Before they entered the Salish Sea this week, the three pods must have met up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca if not the Pacific Ocean, as all were together when they were spotted Monday morning near the south end of Vancouver Island by whale observer Mark Malleson.

The Center for Whale Research sent out two boats. Ken and Gail Richard boarded the Shachi and met up with the leading group of orcas just east of Secretary Island. Ahead of the pack was J-19, a female orca named Shachi, who appears to have taken over the leadership role from Granny, or J-2, the elder matriarch that led J pod for decades before her death.

Read Ken’s full report of the encounter on the Center for Whale Research website. For some observations about Granny, check out these Water Ways reports:

On Monday, J-pod whales were clustered in their family groups along the Vancouver Island shoreline, while those in K pod were farther offshore and trailing J pod, according to Ken’s report. Not all of L pod was there, but those in the area were spending time in their family groups, or matrilines, even farther behind and farther offshore.

Some of the whales were sprinting into tidal waters to catch salmon close to shore on the incoming tide of Monday afternoon, Ken said.

“The salmon tend to move into the Salish Sea with the flood tides and hang back in nearshore eddies and bays in ebb tides,” Ken wrote in his report, “so the whales foraging and traveling east suggested that there were at last sufficient numbers of salmon to bring them all of the way in.”

As the whales captured fish, their social interactions with each other increased, at least among the family groups, Ken told me.

Meanwhile, the second boat from the Center for Whale Research, Orcinus with Dave Ellifrit and Melisa Pinnow aboard, met up with the whales just west of Discovery Island east of Victoria. After a breakaway by the Shachi crew to transfer photos from Mark Mallinson, both boats continued to follow the whales until sunset. At dusk, the entourage ended up right in front of the center’s shoreline base on San Juan Island.

Spurred on by this rare (for this year) sighting of all three pods, the five photographers in the three boats shot more than 3,500 photos in one day, Ken reported. Some of the best portraits and ID photos are shown with notes of the encounter. Other photos and expressions of excitement can be seen on Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Report.

The researchers reported that all the whales in J and K pods were present — except for K-13, who had been reported missing (Water Ways, Aug. 18). Of the 35 orcas in L pod, 22 were seen on Monday. The missing whales are not a concern, Ken said, because the 13 not spotted were all members of matrilines that apparently were somewhere else.

“It is not unprecedented for L pod matrilines to be very widely separated at times — e.g., part of the pod in Puget Sound while others are off California!” Ken noted in his report. “All of the whales today appeared to be frisky and in good condition, though we clearly have a few runts in the youngest cohort of whales – probably having been in perinatal nutritional distress due to recent poor salmon years in the Salish Sea.”

The next day, Tuesday, the whales were spread out in small groups in Georgia Strait on the Canadian side of the border. Yesterday, they traveled back through Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands, then headed on west toward the Pacific Ocean. It will be interesting to see what happens next, as these fish-eating orcas continue to hunt for chinook salmon and then switch this fall to chum salmon when the chinook grow scarce.

The Center for Whale Research’s efforts to keep track of the Southern Residents is funded in part by the federal government, but the center’s other work involving orcas depends on donations and memberships. Go to “Take Action for Orcas” for information.

Amusing Monday: A quiz for you based on the ‘Puget Sound Fact Book’

Two years ago, I worked with a group of Puget Sound researchers and environmental writers to produce the “Puget Sound Fact Book” (PDF 27.6 mb) for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and Puget Sound Institute. The project was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to provide a quick reference for anyone interested in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

I have pulled out some of the facts (with excerpts from the fact book) to create a 15-question quiz for this “Amusing Monday” feature. The answers and quotes from the book can be found below the quiz.

1. Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep. What is its greatest depth?

A. 300 feet
B. 600 feet
C. 900 feet
D. 1,200 feet

2. It is said that Puget Sound was carved out by a series of glaciers. What was the name of the last ice glaciation some 15,000 years ago?

A. Vashon
B. Cascade
C. Blake
D. Olympia

3. One river is responsible for at least one-third of all the freshwater flowing into Puget Sound. What river is it?

A. Snohomish
B. Skagit
C. Skokomish
D. Puyallup

4. How much water is contained in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all of the inlets south of Whidbey Island?

A. 5 cubic miles
B. 10 cubic miles
C. 40 cubic miles
D. 80 cubic miles

5. How many Washington counties have shorelines that front on Puget Sound, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca and waters around the San Juan Island? (That’s the definition of Puget Sound used by the Puget Sound Partnership.)

A. Six
B. Eight
C. Ten
D. Twelve

6. What percentage of the total Washington state population lives in counties with shorelines on Puget Sound?

A. 58 percent
B. 68 percent
C. 78 percent
D. 88 percent

7. Puget Sound is part of the Salish Sea, which extends into Canada. How many marine mammals are considered by researchers to be “highly dependent” on habitats in the Salish Sea?

A. 10
B. 20
C. 30
D. 40

8. Three types of killer whales spend their lives in and around the Salish Sea. “Residents” specialize in eating chinook salmon, and “transients” specialize in eating marine mammals. What do the so-called “offshore” killer whales specialize in eating?

A. Sharks
B. Squid
C. Plankton
D. Birds

9. Rockfish are a long-lived species that live in rocky areas of Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can found in the waterway?

A. Four
B. 12
C. 21
D. 28

10. What is the length of shoreline in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all inlets south of Whidbey Island?

A. 246 miles
B. 522 miles
C. 890 miles
D. 1,332 miles

11. Bulkheads and other shoreline armoring disrupt the ecological functions of natural shorelines. What percentage of the Puget Sound shoreline is armored with man-made structures?

A. 7 percent
B. 17 percent
C. 27 percent
D. 37 percent

12. How many dams could be counted in 2006 in the greater Puget Sound region, including the Elwha dams on the Olympic Peninsula?

A. 136
B. 236
C. 336
D. 436

13. Puget Sound Partnership tracks the attitudes and values of Puget Sound residents. What percentage of the population believes that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an “urgent” priority?

A. 40 percent
B. 50 percent
C. 60 percent
D. 70 percent

14. Climate change can be expected to result in significant changes in the Puget Sound region. Which of the following is something we are likely to see over the next 40 years?

A. Higher 24-hour rainfall totals
B. Higher peak flows in streams with more flooding
C. Α small change in annual rainfall totals
D. All of the above

15. Climate change also affects sea life through ocean acidification. Few species in seawater are expected to avoid impacts. Some of the greatest concerns are being expressed for which animals?

A. Shellfish
B. Sharks
C. Salmon
D. Sea lions

Answers:

1. Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep. What is its greatest depth? Answer: C, 900 feet

“Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep, with the deepest spot near Point Jefferson in Kitsap County at more than 900 feet.”

2. It is said that Puget Sound was carved out by a series of glaciers. What was the name of the last ice glaciation some 15,000 years ago? Answer: A, Vashon

“Puget Sound, as we know it today, owes much of its size and shape to massive ice sheets that periodically advanced from the north, gouging out deep grooves in the landscape. The most recent glacier advance, about 15,000 years ago, reached its fingers beyond Olympia. The ice sheet, known as the Vashon glacier, was more than a half-mile thick in Central Puget Sound and nearly a mile thick at the Canadian border.”

3. One river is responsible for at least one-third of all the freshwater flowing into Puget Sound. What river is it? Answer: B, Skagit

“The annual average river flow into the Sound is about 1,174 cubic meters per second, and a third to a half of this comes from the Skagit River flowing into Whidbey Basin. It would take about 5 years for all the rivers flowing into the Sound to fill up its volume … “

4. How much water is contained in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all of the inlets south of Whidbey Island? Answer: C, 40 cubic miles

“Chesapeake Bay, which filled the immense valley of an ancient Susquehanna River, covers about 4,480 square miles — more than four times the area of Puget Sound (not including waters north of Whidbey Island). But Chesapeake Bay is shallow — averaging just 21 feet deep. In comparison, Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep… Consequently, Puget Sound can hold a more massive volume of water — some 40 cubic miles, well beyond Chesapeake Bay’s volume of 18 cubic miles.”

5. How many Washington counties have shorelines that front on Puget Sound, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca and waters around the San Juan Island? (That’s the definition of Puget Sound used by the Puget Sound Partnership.) Answer: D, twelve

“The Puget Sound coastal shoreline lies within 12 of Washington state’s 39 counties: Clallam, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston and Whatcom. An additional two counties (Lewis County and Grays Harbor County) are also within the watershed basin, although they do not have Puget Sound coastal shorelines….”

6. What percentage of the total Washington state population lives in counties with shorelines on Puget Sound? Answer: B, 68 percent

“As of 2014, the 12 Puget Sound coastal shoreline counties accounted for 68 percent of the Washington State population — 4,779,172 out of 7,061,530, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”

7. Puget Sound is part of the Salish Sea, which extends into Canada. How many marine mammals are considered by researchers to be “highly dependent” on habitats in the Salish Sea? Answer: C, 30 marine mammals

“Thirty-eight species of mammals depend on the Salish Sea. Of the 38 species of mammals that have been documented using the Salish Sea marine ecosystem, 30 are highly dependent, 4 are moderately dependent, and 4 have a low dependence on the marine or intertidal habitat and marine derived food when present.”

8. Three types of killer whales spend their lives in and around the Salish Sea. “Residents” specialize in eating chinook salmon, and “transients” specialize in eating marine mammals. What do the so-called “offshore” killer whales specialize in eating? Answer: A, sharks

“Three ecotypes of killer whales (Orcinus orca) can be found in the Salish Sea. These distinct population segments or designatable units are classified as fish-eating Residents (both the Northern and Southern Resident populations), marine-mammal-eating transients (West Coast Transients), and fish eaters that specialize in sharks called Offshore Killer Whales.”

9. Rockfish are a long-lived species that live in rocky areas of Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can found in the waterway? Answer: D, 28 species

“The Puget Sound has 28 species of rockfish. Rockfish are known to be some of the longest lived fish of Puget Sound. Maximum ages for several species are greater than 50 years. The rougheye rockfish can live up to 205 years.”

10. What is the length of shoreline in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all inlets south of Whidbey Island? Answer: D, 1,332 miles

“The coastline around Puget Sound is 2,143 km (1,332 miles) long. It would take about 18 unceasing days and nights to walk the entire shoreline if it were passable — or legal — everywhere. Note: this distance refers to Puget Sound proper and does not include the San Juan Islands or the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”

11. Bulkheads and other shoreline armoring disrupt the ecological functions of natural shorelines. What percentage of the Puget Sound shoreline is armored with man-made structures? Answer: C, 27 percent armored

“The amount of artificial shoreline has increased by 3,443 percent since the mid- to late-1800s. For example, shoreline armoring — such as bulkheads and riprap — has been constructed on an average 27 percent of the Puget Sound shoreline, but as high as 63 percent of the central Puget Sound shoreline.”

12. How many dams could be counted in 2006 in the greater Puget Sound region, including the Elwha dams on the Olympic Peninsula? Answer: D, 436 dams

“As of 2006, there were 436 dams in the Puget Sound watershed. Dams alter the water flow of rivers and trap sediment, which affect deltas and embayments at the mouths of these rivers and streams. For example, there was nearly 19 million cubic meters of sediment trapped behind the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams on the Elwha River ¬ enough sediment to fill a football field to the height of the Space Needle more than 19 times.”

13. Puget Sound Partnership tracks the attitudes and values of Puget Sound residents. What percentage of the population believes that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an “urgent” priority? Answer: C, 60 percent

“A related, ongoing survey has been gauging the attitudes and values of individual Puget Sound residents, beginning with the first survey in 2008. Since the survey’s inception, more than 60 percent of the population has held to the belief that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an ‘urgent’ priority.”

14. Climate change can be expected to result in significant changes in the Puget Sound region. Which of the following is something we are likely to see over the next 40 years? Answer: D, all of the above

“Projected changes in total annual precipitation are small (relative to variability) and show increases or decreases depending on models, which project a change of −2 % to +13 % for the 2050s (relative to 1970-1999) ….

“More rain in autumn will mean more severe storms and flooding. Annual peak 24-hour rainfall is projected to rise 4 to 30 percent (depending on greenhouse emissions levels) by the late 21st century. Hundred-year peak stream flows will rise 15 to 90 percent at 17 selected sites around Puget Sound. In the flood-prone Skagit Valley, the volume of the 100-year flood of the 2080s will surpass today’s by a quarter, and flooding and sea-level rise together will inundate 75 percent more area than flooding alone used to.

“At the other extreme, water will become scarcer in the spring and summer…. By the 2080s, average spring snowpack in the Puget Sound watershed is projected to decline 56 to 74 percent from levels 100 years earlier. The decline will reach 80 percent by the 2040s in the headwaters of the four rivers (the Tolt, Cedar, Green, and Sultan) serving the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett — reflecting the fact that their snowpacks are already very low, hence vulnerable. By the 2080s, April snowpack will largely disappear from all four watersheds, leaving Puget Sound’s major rivers low and dry in summer.”

15. Climate change also affects sea life through ocean acidification. Few species in seawater are expected to avoid impacts. Some of the greatest concerns are being expressed for which animals? Answer: A, shellfish

“Another factor has also made the Northwest a frontline for acidification: the importance of its shellfish industry, together with the special vulnerability of one key component, larval oysters. University of Washington researchers recently identified worrisome effects on other species with vital commercial or ecological importance. Acidification affects the ability of mussels to produce byssus, the tough adhesive threads that anchor them to their rocks against waves and surf — a life-and-death matter for a mussel. The native bay mussel (Mytilus trossulus) also loses byssal strength when water temperatures surpass 20 degrees C., whereas Mediterranean mussels (M. galloprovincialis) grow more byssus as the waters warm. This suggests a potential species succession, from native to introduced mussels, as Puget Sound becomes warmer and more acidic.

“Potentially more ecologically devastating are acidification’s effects on copepods and krill, small swimming crustaceans at the base of the marine food web….. Krill also inhabit deeper, more acidic waters than copepods, compounding their exposure. Their loss would be grievous for the fishes, seabirds and whales that depend on them.”

Where are the orcas? It’s hard to say, as the latest death is confirmed

I hate to say it, but summer is beginning to wind down. Even more disturbing for killer whale observers is an awareness that Puget Sound’s iconic orcas have pretty much avoided Puget Sound altogether this year.

The patterns of travel and even the social structure of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales have been disrupted the past several years, and this year is the worst ever, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who has been keeping track of these whales for the past 40 years.

For decades, we could expect all three pods of Southern Residents to show up in June, if not before. They would mingle and socialize and generally remain through the summer in the San Juan Islands, feasting on the chinook salmon that migrate to Canada’s Fraser River.

Skagit, K-13, who recently died, is seen in this 2011 photo swimming behind her daughter Deadhead, K-27.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

In recent years, the large orca pods have broken into smaller groups of whales that keep coming and going, as if searching for scattered schools of salmon. This year, the Southern Residents have made few appearances in Puget Sound, barely enough for Ken to complete his annual census report to the federal government.

The latest official count is 77 orcas among the three pods. That reflects the death of K-13, a 45-year old female named Skagit. Ken did not announce her passing, mainly because it is based on limited encounters. Ken tells me that K-13 was the only whale missing during an encounter with her close relatives in February in Puget Sound and then later off the coast.

Normally, he would like to have more encounters before declaring a missing animal deceased, but Skagit has always been a central figure in her family group, which sometimes traveled separately from the rest of K pod.

Under the original protocols for counting whales, one would wait a year before listing the death, Ken told me, but now people are keeping track of the current population as orcas are born and die. His official census count is made on July 1, and he was confident that the missing Skagit would not turn up later.

K-13 was the mother of four offspring: K-20, a 31-year-old female named Spock; K-25, a 26-year-old male named Scoter; K-27, a 23-year-old female named Deadhead; and K-34, a 16-year-old male named Cali. Skagit was the grandmother to Spock’s 13-year-old calf, K-38 or Comet, and to Deadhead’s 6-year-old calf, K-44 or Ripple.

The question now is how the remaining whales in the family group will respond. In a matriarchal society, groups are led by elder females whose extended family generally stays with them for life. Will one of Skagit’s female offspring assume the leadership role? Will the family group remain as independent as it has been in the past?

“It’s a big question,” said Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “These animals are so long-lived. How do you sort out the loss of an animal like J-2, who has had a leadership role for so many years? Do they keep doing the same thing, or do they do something different?”

J-2, known as “Granny” was estimated to be more than 100 years old when she died last year. The oldest whale among the Southern Residents, she was known as the leader of the clans. Check out these posts in Water Ways:

The effect of losing Skagit’s leadership is hard to measure, but it comes on top of the fragmenting social structure among the Southern Residents. As the remaining orcas seem to be wandering around in search of food, we are likely to see fewer births and more deaths.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between births and prey availability, Ken told me, and the absence of the orcas alone is an indicator that fewer salmon are coming through the San Juan Islands. Whether the whales are finding adequate salmon runs somewhere else is hard to say, because nobody really knows where they are.

“I think they are out there intercepting whatever runs are coming down from the Gulf of Alaska,” Ken said. “Most of the salmon up there are destined for down here. They (the whales) are tough, and they will survive if they can.”

While the fish-eating Southern Residents have been absent from Puget Sound, the seal-eating transient killer whales are making themselves at home in local waters. It appears there is no shortage of seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises for them to eat, and transients are being spotted more often by people on shore and in boats.

Meanwhile, the Southern Residents typically head into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon during September, sometimes October. Although the migrating chum return to hundreds of streams all over Puget Sound, the orcas have become less predictable in their travels during the fall as well as the summer.

“I am hoping that the fall chum runs are strong and the whales will come in,” Ken said, “but I’m not holding my breath.”

The total count of 77 Southern Resident killer whales consists of 24 whales in J pod, 18 whales in K pod and 35 whales in L pod. Those numbers do not include Lolita, who was captured in Puget Sound as a calf and still lives in Miami Seaquarium in Florida.