The Orca Connection

The Southern Resident Orca Whales of Washington State's Puget Sound are a critical part of the Northwest ecosystem and economy, drawing millions of tourism dollars each year. They are also endangered, facing severe threats to their survival. One of the major problems orca's face is a lack of food, and that means salmon. Read more for additional information on how these two critical Northwest species are connected.

2025279620Seattle Times: Ten years after ESA listing, killer whale numbers falling

Puget Sound’s already small killer-whale population has declined in the decade since it was protected under the Endangered Species Act. Some experts view the death this month of a pregnant female orca as an alarm bell for the region’s southern residents.

By Craig Welch, Seattle Times environment reporter

December 20, 2014

The death of J32, the pregnant orca known as Rhapsody, is renewing concern among some scientists about the fate of the rest of Puget Sound's southern resident killer whales.

He’s trailed them and photographed them, mapped their family trees and counted their offspring, coming to identify individuals by their markings, sometimes even ascribing personalities based on behavior.

For much of the past 40 years, the dean of San Juan Island orca research has vacillated between hope and frustration about the future of Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales.

But the death this month of J32, an 18-year-old orca known as Rhapsody — who was pregnant with a nearly full-term female calf — is pushing Ken Balcomb closer to despair.

“The death of this particular whale for me shows that we’re at a point in history where we need to wake up to what we have to consider: ‘Do we want whales or not?’ ” said Balcomb, with the Center for Whale Research.


Pregnant killer whale J-32 was starving, necropsy reveals

CBS News, December 15, 2014

Death of killer whale J-32 troubling, say scientists

orca eating salmon CFWRQuestions remain after a necropsy revealed a young female orca in the endangered southern resident population was malnourished when she died before giving birth to a full-term calf.

Preliminary necropsy results released by the Center for Whale Research indicate that J-32 had a thin layer of blubber and had not been feeding adequately for an extended period of time.
But the report also concluded the 19-year-old female likely died because she could not expel a nearly full-term fetus from her body, and that the fetus might have been dead for some time.

"The question is why did the fetus die, and why are we having so much trouble with reproductive success in this population?" said Kenneth Balcomb, the executive director of the center.

J-32,  also known as Rapsody, died near Nanaimo earlier this month. Her body was towed to a beach near Comox, where experts from several agencies conducted an necropsy.

Parts of the whale were removed for further analysis by officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The results of that analysis have yet to be released.

J-32 was one of only 12 reproductive-viable females in the endangered population.

Swimming in toxins

Southern resident orcas are thought to be the most contaminated marine mammals in the world, and tests have shown their blubber contains high levels of contaminants such as PCBs.


Seattle Times: 7-week-old baby orca missing, presumed dead

web LostBabyOrca-2-620x411Associated Press and Seattle Times staff

FRIDAY HARBOR — A killer whale born to much hope in early September apparently died while its pod was in the open ocean off Washington or British Columbia, the Center for Whale Research said.
The baby was the first known calf born since 2012 to a population of endangered orcas that frequent Puget Sound in Washington.

It has not been seen since its pod returned in recent days to inland waters of western Washington, said center’s Ken Balcomb.

“The baby is gone,” he said Tuesday.

The pod was offshore for a week to 10 days, and the orca designated L-120 might have been lost in a storm in the middle of last week, Balcomb said.


KING 5 TV: Orca expert's dire warning about Puget Sound orcas

from the desk of Joseph Bogaard. July 7, 2014 is a link to an excellent July 3 news story on KING5 TV - highlighting renowned killer whale expert Ken Balcomb and his most recent efforts to sound the alarm bells re: the critical situation facing the Northwest's endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SWKWs).

The orca population is in decline and while the federal agencies have identified a number causes, the severe and persistent lack of available prey - primarily chinook salmon - is, according the Mr. Balcomb, most pressing and important to address quickly.

The Columbia and Snake rivers have historically been an essential source of chinook for these orcas - especially in the lean winter months. NOAA-Fisheries, the federal agency charged with protecting both endangered orcas and endangered salmon has previously identified the historic predation by these orcas on Columbia Basin chinook salmon and have described the decline of salmon in the Columbia River basin as “[p]erhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s...”

Nevertheless, this same federal agency insisted in January on producing an inadequate status quo 2014 Columbia-Snake River Salmon Plan that once again is far more favorable to river industrialists than the endangered salmon populations, and the imperiled orca and struggling fishing businesses and communities that rely on healthy, abundant salmon populations.

Click here to see the story online (you can read the text below). Click here to learn more about the orca-salmon connection and the federal agencies' inadequate 2014 Columbia Basin Salmon Plan here.


New study: Puget Sound's orcas concentrate at the Columbia River's mouth during Spring

orca.risingFrom the desk of Joseph Bogaard 
February 2, 2014 

A recently-published study from the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America makes new findings that connect endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) with threatened and endangered salmon of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. NOAA-Fisheries, the federal agency charged with protecting has previously identified the historic predation by these orcas on Columbia Basin chinook salmon and have previously described the decline of salmon in the Columbia River basin as “[p]erhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s...”

Today, there is strong evidence that the SRKWs are often suffering from severe nutritional stress (starving). The lack of available prey has been documented as a key source of mortality and low reproductive success in recent years. This new study confirms the recent presence of SRKWs at or near the mouth of the Columbia River in March/April and speculates that they are drawn there to feed on oily, energy-rich spring chinook that also gather at the river’s mouth in March before beginning their upriver migration.

Needless to say, a Columbia Basin that produces many more chinook salmon would be a very good thing for SRKWs and help address what scientist consider orca’s biggest threat: lack of a sufficient prey base to support their survival and recovery.

The study’s abstract below nicely summarizes the study’s findings, followed by a link to the full study.

Assessing the coastal occurrence of endangered killer whales using autonomous passive acoustic recorders.
By M. Bradley Hanson, Candice K. Emmons, and Eric J. Ward
Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, November 2013.

Using moored autonomous acoustic recorders to detect and record the vocalizations of social odonotocetes to determine their occurrence patterns is a non-invasive tool in the study of these species in remote locations. Acoustic recorders were deployed in seven locations on the continental shelf of the U.S. west coast from Cape Flattery, WA to Pt. Reyes, CA to detect and record endangered southern resident killer whales between January and June of 2006–2011. Detection rates of these whales were greater in 2009 and 2011 than in 2006–2008, were most common in the month of March, and occurred with the greatest frequency off the Columbia River and Westport, which was likely related to the presence of their most commonly consumed prey, Chinook salmon. The observed patterns of annual and monthly killer whale occurrence may be related to run strength and run timing, respectively, for spring Chinook returning to the Columbia River, the largest run in this region at this time of year. Acoustic recorders provided a unique, long-term, dataset that will be important to inform future consideration of Critical Habitat designation for this U.S. Endangered Species Act listed species.

You can read the full study here.

Orca advocates, businesses and scientists call on Governor Inslee to take action to rebuild endangered chinook salmon stocks.

From the desk of Howard Garrett, Director of Orca Network

Jan 13, 2014

orca and chinookThousands of years ago, when the ancestors of today’s Southern Resident orcas moved into the newly thawed Salish Sea, they learned they could depend almost entirely on chinook salmon for food. Then chinook  were plentiful, huge and packed with calories, not toxins.

Now chinook are smaller and far fewer, and though orcas scan every current and crevice for miles around, during times of scarcity they can’t find enough to sustain themselves, and some of them inevitably starve. By tradition, they share their fish with the youngest and oldest family members, raising mortalities among otherwise healthy adults.

By 2001 this extended orca family had dropped to just 78 members. Today there are but 80.


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