Tag Archives: Southern Resident killer whales

Female orca in declining health shows amazing signs of recovery

The killer whale J-17, known as Princess Angeline, seems to have made a remarkable recovery since December, when the 42-year-old female was diagnosed with “peanut head” — an indicator of malnutrition that almost always leads to death.

Princess Angeline, J-17, in Admiralty Inlet Sunday
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research
Federal permits: NMFS 21238 / DFO SARA 388

Now Princess Angeline looks much better and shows few signs of that dire condition, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who got a good look at her Sunday when J pod came into Puget Sound.

“Since New Year’s Eve, J-17 has fared much better than we expected,” Ken told me. “They must have found some winter food up in Georgia Strait.”

At one point, Ken had said it would be a “miracle” if she were ever seen again.

Her current condition does not mean that she is no longer at risk. In March, her terribly bad breath suggested an underlying medical problem, perhaps beyond the lack of food.

J pod, one of the three southern resident killer whale pods, typically spends most of the winter in the northern part of the Salish Sea in British Columbia. The whales sometimes cross the Canadian border to check out food availability in Puget Sound.

The orcas prefer to eat chinook salmon, although they occasionally eat other fish. Younger chinook, known as blackmouth, can be found in inland waters during the winter, but they are smaller and provide less energy for the amount of effort it takes to catch them.

Ken observed that J pod seemed to be catching blackmouth in Admiralty Inlet when he watched them on Sunday. Read his full report at the Center for Whale Research website.

Anglers were reportedly catching fair numbers of blackmouth in the Kingston-Edmonds region, where the orcas were seen Sunday, according to Puget Sound creel reports. Foraging by the orcas was noticed by many whale observers, according to the latest whale-sightings report from Orca Network.

“Sunday turned out to be more wonderful than we could have hoped when Js/L87 made their way north and foraged all day in glassy calm seas in the great wide open between Edmonds, South Whidbey, and the Kitsap Peninsula,” wrote Alisa Lemire Brooks, who compiled an extensive report of minute-by-minute sightings. “Perhaps there wasn’t enough salmon to entice a longer stay, since they showed up off the west side of San Juan Island the following morning.”

If Princess Angeline has overcome her malnourished condition, it would be truly welcome news. The critically endangered southern residents, with 75 animals, are close to the lowest population observed since many were captured for the aquarium trade during the 1960s and ‘70s. “Peanut head” describes the shape of an orca’s head when a severe loss of blubber creates an indention behind the blowhole.

Princess Angeline, named after the daughter of Chief Seattle, is the mother of Tahlequah, or J-35, a 21-year-old orca mom who became heartbreakingly famous for carrying her dead calf on her head for 17 days. Tahlequah herself has remained relatively healthy.

Another whale showing peanut head last year was K-25, a 28-year-old male named Scoter. He lost his mother, K13 or Skagit, in 2017. Males who lose their mothers often struggle to survive. K pod has not been observed lately, so Scoter’s status is unknown.

L pod visits Monterey Bay on March 31.
Video: Monterey Bay Whale Watch

The importance of the orcas’ social networks, including the sharing of salmon, is described nicely in an article written by Sarah DeWeerdt and published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the Kitsap Sun.

Meanwhile, L pod traveled down the coast to Monterey Bay, Calif., where the whales seemed to be catching chinook from the Sacramento River, according to reports from March 31. Alisa Schulman-Janiger, co-founder of the California Killer Whale Project, was quoted in the San Jose Mercury News:

“They go wherever they can find Chinook salmon…,” she said. “We know they aren’t getting enough food; we know that they’re struggling; and we’re seeing some whales that are skinnier …. This year is a good year for salmon in Monterey Bay…. It’s just great to know that this is a habitat that can still provide them with food.”

Fishing guides, including Monterey Bay Charters, were reporting good fishing when targeting salmon.

The newest calf in the southern resident population, designated L-124, was seen alive and apparently healthy among the whales in Monterey Bay. The calf, who was born in January and called “Lucky” by Ken Balcomb, is the third calf for L-77, a 32-year-old female named Matia. Her first calf survived only a short time, but her second calf, L-119 named Joy, seems to be doing well.

It will be interesting to see when the whales all show up together in Puget Sound this year. J pod tends to pop in and out of Puget Sound all winter, while K and L pods often travel up and down the Washington Coast, sometimes as far as northern California, as L pod did this year. Years ago, the whales all got together in late May or June, staying around the San Juan Islands most of the summer.

In recent years, their movements have become less predictable. Last year, none of the pods showed up during the entire month of May — something that has never happened before, at least not since the first observations were recorded in the early 1970s. See Water Ways, June 29, 2018.

In contrast to the fish-eating southern resident orcas, the transient orcas, which eat marine mammals, have been seen more and more in Puget Sound. An apparent abundance of harbor seals and California sea lions seem to be feeding them well, both in North and South Puget Sound.

As I’ve often reported, transients are the unknowing allies of the endangered southern residents, since they reduce the population of seals and sea lions, which prey upon the salmon that are so important to the residents.

In Canada, Gary Sutton, a captain with the whale-watching company Ocean Ecoventures, counted eight groups of transients in the same area of Georgia Strait on Sunday. If all the individuals in the groups can be confirmed with IDs, it would be a total 41 transients, a possible record aggregation, he says.

“A LOT of socializing ensued with tons of spyhops and vocals,” Gary said in a report to Orca Network. “I managed to capture the majority of them on camera and a few visual IDs.”

As for the southern residents, reporter Simone Del Rosario of Q13 Fox News comes to a provocative and unwelcome conclusion, based on her extensive research for a five-part television series.

“I’ve spent the past year analyzing this question: Is this the last generation of southern resident orcas?

“I’ve looked at the threats to their survival: the lack of prey; contaminants; and vessel disturbance. I’ve interviewed the foremost experts in this field and pressed the politicians who have the power to make a change. I’ve traveled across the state and even to Canada learning about solutions and meeting the people who are pushing them forward.

“A year later, I’ve come to a conclusion, and it’s one I don’t make lightly. There is no question: This is the last generation. Humans — who are responsible for putting these mammals in such a critical state — need to act now if there’s any chance at turning around the killer whales’ decline.”

And so, in effect, she actually leaves the door open for humans to make the changes needed to save the whales. I recommend the series, which can be viewed from five video players on the webpage “The last generation: southern resident orcas in danger of extinction.”

I first confronted the possibility of extinction two years ago in a Water Ways blog post that includes an interview with Ken Balcomb. That was before the death of Scarlet, or J-50, and before a newborn orca calf died to be carried around by its mom. It was before the formation of the governor’s Killer Whale Task Force and the resulting legislation being debated in Olympia.

My question: How long can the orcas remain on the edge of extinction? Or, if I’m feeling optimistic: How long MUST the orcas remain on the edge of extinction?

Legislation to help endangered orcas keeps moving toward approval

Members of the governor’s orca task force this week expressed hope and a bit of surprise as they discussed their recommendations to help the orcas —recommendations that were shaped into legislation and now have a fairly good chance of passage.

Over the years, some of their ideas have been proposed and discussed — and ultimately killed — by lawmakers, but now the plight of the critically endangered southern resident killer whales has increased the urgency of these environmental measures — including bills dealing with habitat, oil-spill prevention and the orcas themselves.

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Orcas gain increasing clout during fishing season discussions

Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are becoming fully integrated into annual planning efforts that divide up the available salmon harvest among user groups — including sport, commercial and tribal fishers.

An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf Windsong (L-121) in 2015.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS and FAA permits.

The southern resident killer whales should be given priority for salmon over human fishers, according to a fishing policy adopted for 2019-2023 by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. The new policy calls for “proper protection to SRKW from reduction to prey availability or from fishery vessel traffic …”

The problem with allocating a specific number of salmon to the orcas is that the whales cannot tell us when or where they would like to take salmon for their own consumption. The result, now in the planning stages, is to limit or close fishing in areas where the orcas are most likely to forage during the fishing seasons.

As revealed yesterday during the annual “North of Falcon” forecast meeting, fewer chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary food — are expected to return to Puget Sound this year compared to last year, but more coho salmon should be available for sport and tribal fishermen. The challenge, according to harvest managers, is to set fishing seasons to take harvestable coho without unduly affecting the wild chinook — a threatened species in Puget Sound.

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New ‘civil enforcement’ proposed for violations of hydraulic permits

Concerns about the endangered southern resident killer whales seems to be spurring legislative support for new enforcement tools that could be used to protect shoreline habitat.

Bills in both the state House and Senate would allow stop-work orders to be issued by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife when shoreline construction is done without permits or exceeds permit conditions. If passed, the law would require that Fish and Wildlife officials first work with contractors and property owners to achieve “voluntary compliance.”

Working with property owners is the key, stressed Jeff Davis, deputy director of Fish and Wildlife in charge of habitat protection. Under current law, property owners who commit serious permit violations are charged with criminal misdemeanors. That’s neither good for the agency nor for the property owner, who may end up battling each other in court, said Davis, who once worked as a Fish and Wildlife habitat biologist in Kitsap County.

The criminal approach may work well with “egregious violations of the law,” Davis told the House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources, “but it’s not an appropriate tool for the vast majority of noncompliance we see out there. We would rather work with people so they are in compliance and there aren’t impacts to fish.”

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Sharing info and solving mysteries: International Year of the Salmon

Nearly a decade in the planning phase, it appears that the International Year of the Salmon couldn’t come at a better time for Northwest residents.

More and more people are beginning to recognize the importance of chinook salmon to the long-term survival of our Southern Resident killer whales. Legislation designed to improve the populations of salmon and orcas has gained increased urgency as these iconic creatures continue to decline.

Many countries throughout the Northern Hemisphere have joined together in a campaign to raise public awareness about salmon this year and to increase the support for scientific research and restoration projects that might save endangered salmon from extinction.

One exciting aspect of the International Year of the Salmon, or IYS, is a scientific expedition involving 21 researchers from five countries. This international dream team will depart Sunday from Vancouver, British Columbia, to engage in a month of research into the secrets of salmon survival. I described this long-anticipated endeavor in an article published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Orca health assessment, legal rights, and two upcoming presentations

The ongoing shutdown of the federal government has kept federal marine mammal biologists and administrators from paying close attention to the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The folks I know at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center must be going crazy over their inability to do their jobs, which have always been central to the survival of our beloved orcas.

To take a breath sample, mist from an orca’s blow is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for pathogens. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

But now a coalition of non-government orca experts plans to step in to at least conduct an initial health assessment of two orcas showing signs of “peanut head,” an indicator of malnutrition that frequently leads to death. Initial plans for taking minimally invasive fecal and breath samples were developed during a meeting of the minds on a conference call yesterday. Further efforts, such as medical treatment, would need special authorization from federal officials.

I won’t go into further details here, since you can read the story published this morning by the Puget Sound Institute.

Treaty rights related to orcas

After all my years of covering killer whale issues, it is interesting to see the emergence of the Lummi Nation as a major participant in the orca discussions. Kurt Russo, senior policy analyst for the Lummi Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, told me that tribal members have a spiritual connection with the orcas that goes back thousands of years. The inherent right to commune with the “blackfish” or “qwe i/to! Mechtcn” was never superseded by treaties signed between the tribe and the U.S. government, so these rights still stand, he said.

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Salmon treaty designed to boost spawning count and feed the orcas

Allowable fishing for chinook salmon in the waters of Canada and Southeast Alaska will be cut back significantly this year as a result of a revised 10-year Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada.

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The goal of the updated treaty is to increase the number of adult chinook returning to Washington and Oregon waters, where they will be available to feed a declining population of endangered orcas while increasing the number of fish spawning in the streams, according to Phil Anderson, a U.S. negotiator on the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Most chinook hatched in Washington and Oregon travel north through Canada and into Alaska, making them vulnerable to fishing when they return. Changes to the treaty should reduce Canadian harvests on those stocks by about 12.5 percent and Alaskan harvests by about 7.5 percent, Phil told me. Those numbers are cutbacks from actual harvests in recent years, he said, so they don’t tell the complete story.

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Efforts continue to retrieve orca Lolita, despite legal setback

Although the Endangered Species Act may encourage extraordinary efforts to save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction, it cannot be used to bring home the last Puget Sound orca still in captivity, a court has ruled.

A 51-year-old killer whale named Lolita, otherwise called Tokitae, has been living in Miami Seaquarium since shortly after her capture in 1970. Her clan — the Southern Resident killer whales — were listed as endangered in 2005, but the federal listing specifically excluded captive killer whales.

In 2013, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) successfully petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to have Lolita included among the endangered whales. But the endangered listing has done nothing to help those who hoped Lolita’s owners would be forced to allow a transition of the whale back into Puget Sound.

This week, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reiterated its earlier finding that Lolita has not been injured or harassed to the point that her captivity at the Miami Seaquarium violates the federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA.

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Scarlett, the young orca, has gone missing and is presumed to be dead

A tenacious young orca named Scarlet, gravely emaciated for several weeks, has gone missing and is presumed dead.

Scarlet and her mother Slick head toward San Juan Island on Aug. 18. Scarlet is now missing.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

Scarlet, designated J-50, was last seen on Friday with her mother and other family members. Since then, observers have encountered her close relatives several times. Yet Scarlet, who was nearly 4 years old, has been nowhere to be found.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who maintains the official census of the Southern Resident killer whales, announced her death late yesterday.

“J-50 is missing and now presumed dead,” Ken wrote in a press release. “Her last known sighting was Friday, September 7, by our colleagues at NOAA, SeaDoc, and others. The Center for Whale Research has had a vessel on the water looking for J-50 for the past three days. We have seen all the other members of her family (i.e., J-16s) during these outings.”

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Capture and treatment being considered for young emaciated orca

A young orca, said to be on the threshold of death, could be captured for examination and possible medical treatment under a plan devised by federal biologists and other experts.

Scarlet, or J-50, follows close behind her mother Slick, or J-16, in this photo taken Aug. 18.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

The capture would be carried out when the 3-year-old female whale, known as J-50 or Scarlet, is found alone at some distance from her pod, according to officials with NOAA Fisheries. One option would be a quick examination and immediate treatment, but preparations also are being made for a possible relocation to an open-water netpen near Manchester in South Kitsap, where she would receive more extensive rehabilitation.

The idea of removing Scarlet from her close-knit family and orca community has received mixed reactions from a team of marine mammal experts, who were called together Monday to advise the federal agency. Meanwhile, some whale-advocacy groups have expressed strong opposition to the plan.

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