The Orca Connection
The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) of Washington State's Puget Sound amd Salish Sea are a critical part of the Northwest ecosystem and economy. They are apex predators, much-loved icons of Washington State that generate tens of millions in tourism dollars every year. They are also officially "endangered" and face severe threats to their survival. A top problem for the SRKWs is a lack of an adequate prey base - chinook salmon.
Despite having learned much about these imperiled whales in the last decade, NOAA has made precious little actual progress to meet their essential needs. The Columbia Basin — and the Snake River watershed in particular — that holds the greatest promise for restoring significant numbers of chinook in the near-term. For this reason, orca scientists and advocates increasingly support calls to remove the four costly lower Snake River dams.
No other Northwest chinook restoration proposal offers such potential. Investing in a healthy, free-flowing lower Snake River will restore salmon’s spawning access to more than 5,500 high-quality river and stream miles and produce hundreds of thousands more chinook to help southern resident killer whales survive and rebuild. Save Our wild Salmon looks forward to the opportunity to work with the people of Washington State and beyond to craft a plan that restores the Snake River and serves orcas, salmon and our communities on both sides of the Cascades.
Read the articles and posts for additional information on how these two critical Northwest species are connected.
The Stranger: Is Anyone Going to Save the Endangered Killer Whales in Puget Sound Before It's Too Late?
March 22, 2017
In September of 2016, the oldest living orca known to science, J2, was photographed near San Juan Island from a drone. Matriarch of the southern residents, a population of killer whales that lives in Puget Sound and is unique on the planet, J2 got her name because she was the second orca to be positively identified by scientists at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island during the first census of southern resident killer whales, conducted in 1976. The Center for Whale Research also assigns nicknames, and because J2 was so old when scientists first identified her, the nickname she got was "Granny."
"We do not know her precise age because she was born long before our study began," Ken Balcomb, the marine mammal biologist who founded the Center for Whale Research, explained. "In 1987, we estimated that she was at least 45 years old and was more likely to have been 76 years old." By 2016, she was estimated to be somewhere from 74 to 105 years old.
When she was seen near San Juan Island in September, she did not look good. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Vancouver Aquarium noted J2's "thin body shape" and "relatively poor" condition. One thing that distinguishes southern residents from other kinds of killer whales is that southern residents eat only salmon. In fact, 80 percent of the southern resident diet is specifically Chinook salmon—and just like the southern residents themselves, Chinook salmon is on the endangered species list. There used to be plentiful Chinook salmon in local waters, especially where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean and where the Fraser River meets the Salish Sea, but now wild Chinook is scarce.
Dr. Deborah Giles, research director for the Center for Whale Research, said Granny was in an "emaciated state" in the photos NOAA's drone took. And yet, even though Granny was herself clearly hungry, the documentation showed her hunting for food for a relative. "She was seen foraging for, pushing, basically corralling a fish toward her family member," said Dr. Giles, whose specialty is behavior. "It's incredible. The females really are the matriarchs of these family groups, and they do whatever they can [for others in their families] to the detriment of themselves. These whales cooperatively hunt. They forage and find fish and share fish with each other. That's just remarkable." The drone photography showed J2 and her relative J45 swimming side by side, a salmon swimming between them. "Ultimately, J2 captured the salmon and presented it to J45," according to NOAA.
Hawaii Magazine, Coastal Science and Societies: What Happens When an Endangered Whale Pod Loses its Wise Old Grandma?
With the death of Granny, the matriarch of the northeast Pacific’s southern resident killer whales, a century’s worth of knowledge and leadership is lost as well.
by Elin Kelsey
Published January 25, 2017
In late December 2016, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in Washington State announced that the world’s oldest-known killer whale had died. Granny, or J2 as she is known in the whale research community, had not been seen since mid-October and her absence from her close-knit community led researchers to declare her dead. She was estimated to be 105, extremely old for any mammal.
Granny was the matriarch and most famous of the southern resident killer whales—an extended family of 78 whales in three pods: J, K, and L. In recent years, she was swimming in the lead of J pod virtually every time she was seen. The question of who will assume her leadership position holds more than just common interest: studies show that killer whale matriarchs play a crucial role in the cohesion and survival of their communities. “In killer whales, these old females are very important,” says Hal Whitehead, an expert in the study of whale cultures at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This complex social structure is also relatively unheard of. “To have these social systems where elderly, postmenopausal matriarchs have a vital role in the lives of their family members is very rare,” says Whitehead.
Tri-Cities Herard Letter to the Editor: On orcas, ask an expert
December 28, 2016
A guest opinion recently challenged the notion that starving orcas would benefit from dam removal, which scientists say will bolster dwindling salmon populations. Pasco City Planner Dave McDonald writes, “The Columbia/Snake River system is not connected to that habitat favored by the orcas.”
That’s just not true, but then again Mr. McDonald isn’t an expert on orcas. Instead let’s look to Dr. Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, for a fact-based explanation. Dr. Wasser has conducted internationally respected research on orcas for years.
In a recent press statement he said, “Early spring Columbia River Chinook are vital to the reproductive health and population growth of southern resident killer whales. They replenish the whale’s reserves after the harsh winter and sustain them until the Fraser River Chinook run peaks in late summer. Low abundance of the Columbia River run increases rates of spontaneous abortions among pregnant whales of that year.”
Historically, half the Columbia Basin’s spring Chinook were produced in habitat located above the lower Snake River dams. Removing dams would re-open access. That’s why scientists view it as the most promising tool for salmon (and orca) recovery.
Steve Hawley, Hood River, Ore.
KING5-TV: Vigils Held for Southern Resident Orcas
December 27, 2016
Three vigils across Puget Sound Tuesday night honored Southern Resident orcas as the number of whales has now dropped below 80.
After the death of J-34, recently found on the coast of British Columbia, there are only 79 Southern Residents known alive.
Four orcas in the J-pod and one orca in the L-pod died in 2016. The cause of death for J-14 is unknown. J-28 and her dependent calf J-54 also died of unknown causes, though the mother appeared emaciated before death. The necropsy for J-34 revealed the 18-year old male orca likely died of blunt force trauma caused by a boat. L-95 died due to a fungal infection likely caused by NOAA tagging.
Many whale advocates have made the Snake River dams a central point of policy efforts to save the orcas, claiming the dams have restricted Southern Resident food sources to a dire level. The whales are known mainly to eat Chinook salmon.
KOMO NEWS: Endangered southern resident orca found dead off Canadian coast
by KOMO Staff, December 21, 2016
The Southern Resident Orca known as J34 was found dead on Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, in the Sunshine Coast area, about 30 miles north of Vancouver, B.C. (Photo: CTV)
VANCOUVER, B.C. - One of the Puget Sound's endangered southern resident orcas was found dead in Canadian waters this week.
The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans said the 18-year-old male orca, known as J34, was found on Monday floating in the water in the Sunshine Coast area, about 30 miles north of Vancouver.
"He had not yet grown to full size," said Howard Garrett from the Orca Network. "It's just very sad to see him go. He had not reached his full maturity."
The Center for Whale Research said J34 was spotted alive as recently as Dec. 7. Garrett said he was very recognizable member of the pod.
"[He was] the indicator of J-pod because he had a very distinct curve through his dorsal fin and a little notch that you could pick him out," said Garrett. "Once you saw him, you would know that the immediate family was nearby."
Crosscut.com: Oil tankers could doom Puget Sound’s orcas
By Nick Turner, December 13, 2016
Canada’s recent approval for the construction of a pipeline in British Columbia could signal big changes for killer whales in the Puget Sound.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave the green light to a pipeline proposed by energy giant Kinder Morgan to transport oil from the sands fields of Alberta to Burnaby, British Columbia, at a rate of 890,000 barrels a day. The problem for the orcas is that the land-based pipeline, nicknamed the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, is expected to bring a sevenfold spike in oil tanker traffic through the waters of the Salish Sea.
This carries heavy implications for local marine life, especially the orca population living in Puget Sound and along the coasts of southern British Columbia and Washington state.
Both the United States and Canada consider the orcas there to be endangered, and their declining population was causing experts to worry even before the pipeline proposal.
“Death by a thousand cuts, and this is a very deep cut,” says Deborah Giles, research director for the Center for Whale Research.
Giles explains that if the present rate of decline continues — even without the Trans Mountain Pipeline — the southern resident killer whales could die off before the end of this century.
- Nov 30, 2016 - Truthout Report: Without Major Interventions, the Orca's Days Are Numbered
- Oct 31, 2016 - KOMO News: 'It's a sad day:' Researchers claim Puget Sound orcas are starving and dying
- Oct 29, 2016 - Seattle Times: Another Puget Sound orca dies; hope dim for her calf
- Jun 25, 2016 - Crosscut.com: The orcas are starving
- Jun 06, 2016 - Orca and Salmon - An Evening of Storytelling
- Jun 02, 2016 - NRDC Blog: To Save Orcas, First Save Salmon
- Jun 02, 2016 - Defenders Magazine: Looking for a Sound Solution
- Jun 01, 2016 - Orca Month 2016 Calendar of Events
- Mar 31, 2016 - Seattle Times Guest Opinion: Hungry killer whales waiting for Columbia River salmon
- Jan 24, 2016 - Seattle Times: Puget Sound orca numbers rise fast after 30-year low in 2014
- Dec 07, 2015 - CBC: Orca baby boom: 7th calf born to endangered southern resident population
- Nov 16, 2015 - Crosscut.com: To save the orcas, do we need to demolish dams?
- Nov 06, 2015 - Huff Post: Newborn Orca 'Baby Boom' Depends Upon Our Breaching Deadbeat Dams
- Oct 28, 2015 - Daily Astorian Editorial: Orcas growing factor in Columbia River salmon management
- Oct 22, 2015 - KOMO TV: Interview with Dr. Carl Safina on the Orca-Salmon Connection
- Oct 22, 2015 - Seattle Times: Puget Sound’s killer whales looking good
- Oct 08, 2015 - Skagit Valley Herald: New alliance has big goals for salmon, orca recovery
- Aug 21, 2015 - Patagonia's The Cleanest Line: Save Money, Save Salmon, Save Mike: Free the Snake
- Jun 17, 2015 - Nat Geo Guest Blog: Breach the Snake River Dams
- Jun 05, 2015 - The Daily Astorian: Orcas back at Columbia River as 2015 tracking ends
- May 21, 2015 - WDC Guest Blog: Southern Resident Orcas and the Snake River
- Apr 01, 2015 - Seattle Times: Orca baby boom continues with discovery of fourth calf
- Mar 04, 2015 - Seattle Times: Researchers tracking killer whales took this video of a new calf from the endangered orca population
- Mar 04, 2015 - Chinook Observer: Animal roundup: Baby orca leads a parade of returning species
- Mar 04, 2015 - Chinook Observer: Baby orca in the Columbia River plume this week
- Feb 28, 2015 - Guest Opinion: Survival of endangered orcas in the Salish Sea depends on restoring chinook
- Feb 24, 2015 - Lewiston Tribune: Whale concerns prompt dam petition
- Feb 20, 2015 - Kitsap Sun: K and L pods under observation as they travel south in ocean
- Feb 18, 2015 - Islander Weekly: Dam removal initiative finds footing in DC
- Dec 22, 2014 - Seattle Times: Ten years after ESA listing, killer whale numbers falling
- Dec 16, 2014 - CBS News: Pregnant killer whale J-32 was starving, necropsy reveals
- Oct 22, 2014 - Seattle Times: 7-week-old baby orca missing, presumed dead
- Jul 07, 2014 - KING 5 TV: Orca expert's dire warning about Puget Sound orcas
- Feb 03, 2014 - New study connects Puget Sound orcas and Columbia Basin salmon
- Jan 15, 2014 - Orca advocates, businesses and scientists call on Governor Inslee to take action to rebuild endangered chinook salmon stocks
- Apr 10, 2013 - Watching Our Waterways: Orca tracking project comes to an end for now
- Mar 05, 2013 - Revealing new data shows killer whales' affinity for the Columbia River mouth
- Jun 21, 2010 - June is Orca Month - Check out the new video on salmon and orcas
- Dec 29, 2009 - Orcas and Salmon Roundup by Howard Garrett: Will The Present Administration Act In Behalf Of Orcas And Salmon?
- Dec 01, 2009 - "Commercial Fisheries, Salmon, and Orcas" - by Candace Calloway Whiting in the Seattle PI's City Brights
- Nov 17, 2009 - "River of Renewal"- Salmon, Dams, Orcas, and You
- Jun 10, 2009 - Orca Awareness Month
- Mar 03, 2009 - Saving Snake River salmon will save Puget Sound killer whales
- May 02, 2008 - Seattle Times Guest columnists: Connect the dots to save orcas, salmon