The Orca Connection

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Associated Press: Orca population in Puget Sound falling

orca eating salmon CFWRNot only are Puget Sound’s resident killer whales continuing to decline in numbers, but their behavior is changing, too, according to scientists. The orcas seem to be splintering from their basic social groups and spending less time together.

August 30, 2014

FRIDAY HARBOR — With two new deaths this year and no new calves since 2012, the population of endangered killer whales in the Puget Sound continues to decline.

The number of whales in the J, K and L pods has dropped to 78, a level not seen since 1985, according to a census by the Center for Whale Research. Adding to the concerns, the whales appear to be “splintering” from their pods, which are their basic social groups.

Since 1976, Ken Balcomb of the research center has been observing the Puget Sound orcas, or Southern Residents as they’re known among scientists. Balcomb compiles an annual census of the population for submission to the federal government.

Historically, all three pods of orcas have come together in the San Juan Islands during summer months, often feeding and socializing in large groups, Balcomb noted. But for the past few years, the pods have divided themselves into small groups, sometimes staying together but often staying apart.

“What we’re seeing with this weird association pattern is two or three members of one pod with two or three from another pod,” Balcomb said. “It’s a fragmentation of the formal social structure, and you can see that fragmentation going further. They are often staying miles and miles apart and not interacting.

“If we were trying to name the pods now, we couldn’t do it,” he added. “They aren’t associating in those patterns anymore.”

Among killer whales, offspring tend to stay with their mothers for life, sustaining identifiable “matrilines” that typically contain youngsters, their mothers and their grandmothers. So far, the matrilines have stayed together, though many of these groups are now smaller.

Balcomb suggests the primary factor for the population decline is a lack of food for the killer whales, which generally prey on chinook salmon passing through the San Juan Islands on the way back to Canada’s Fraser River. The whales have a strong preference for chinook, typically larger and fatter fish, but they will eat other species of salmon and even other fish sometimes.

“The salmon issue is huge, and it is ongoing,” Balcomb said.

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Saving Salmon to Save Orcas

orca eating salmon CFWRcredit: Center for Whale ResearchIt may seem obvious, but orcas (especially the Southern Resident Killer Whales in Puget Sound and other inland marine waters of Washington and British Columbia) eat a lot of fish. And salmon comprise a large part of their diet. With many species of salmon threatened, and the orcas endangered, there is a lot of debate about how best to address this issue. Orcas are a major source of tourism dollars for the Northwest, which makes this about more than preserving two critical species of our ecosystem – it’s also about enhancing our regional economy.

A draft report was released in May by an independent scientific review panel assessing options for how to handle the complex issue of the effects of salmon fishing on orcas. The solution, it turns out, is not as complex is it may appear. While some may argue that we should further limit already drastically reduced salmon fishing (and thus hurt salmon jobs), the report finds it doubtful that that reduced fishing would have much impact on the health and success of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW).  Instead, the report concludes that “promoting salmon recovery is vital to long-term persistence of SRKW.”

In other words, rather than be distracted by the marginal impacts of ocean fishing or sightseeing vessels on SRKW, we should instead be focusing our efforts on increasing the amount of salmon available to orcas in the first place. (See the comments submitted by SOS on that draft report here.)

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Save Our wild Salmon is a diverse, nationwide coalition working together to restore wild salmon and steelhead to the rivers, streams and marine waters of the Pacific Northwest for the benefit of our region's ecology, economy and culture.

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