On June 30 2022, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife issued an emergency order asking vessels to keep at least one-half nautical mile away from the Southern Resident killer whales, as 13 members of this endangered population have just been designated as “vulnerable.”

“Vulnerability often refers to pregnant females,” explained Dr. Deborah Giles, Wild Orca’s Research and Science Director. “However this year, this includes 12 whales in poor body condition, including showing signs of emaciation.” Sadly this includes L83 Moonlight who is also pregnant. “Additionally two youngsters are considered still small for their age,” Giles added. “It’s alarming that we have concerns over 15 individual whales. That’s 20% of the whole population; it’s simply unprecedented.”

A study released just one week earlier by Canadian scientists, showed that from 2018 to 2020, Chinook salmon abundance was too low to meet the daily energy needs of the Southern Resident killer whales. It’s likely that this trend will continue given that Chinook fishing is permitted from Alaska to California—even though some Chinook populations of importance to these whales have been on the Endangered Species list since 1990. Little wonder that there are less Southern Residents today than when they were first listed as endangered in 2005.

“Even the so-called baby-boom turned out to be a bust, with half those calves not surviving to 5 years-old,” said Giles. “The two youngsters of concern this year are from that cohort,”  she added. “The truth is, we should be seeing six to seven new calves born every year—as we are seeing in the mammal-eating population of killer whales. Instead we are left celebrating if a single calf survives. The fecal samples collected since 2010 reveal that most pregnancies fail due to insufficient prey.”

The Governor’s Task Force concluded in 2018, but little has changed. In 2020, a workgroup headed by NOAA Fisheries concluded that additional fishing restrictions—to leave more Chinook for the Southern Residents—are unwarranted unless Chinook abundance falls to the lows of two decades ago. Yet now we know that these whales were food limited for at least three of the last five years.

Bold measures are needed now. Breaching the lower Snake River dams is imperative. Meanwhile, NOAA Fisheries must allocate a portion of the available Chinook to these whales, and close or at least severely limit non-treaty commercial Chinook fishing in known killer whale fishing hotspots. Fishermen could be compensated for these closures, as Canada has done in recent years to save Pacific salmon. Yet Canada’s actions alone cannot suffice, when 97% of all Chinook caught in the Southeast Alaska fishery originate in rivers from British Columbia to Oregon.

Our government must step up now before it’s too late.

—Ends

Which Southern Residents are on the watch list?

Individuals from J and L pod whose body condition “falls into the lowest 20% of measurements for age and sex.” There are no comparable recent surveys of K pod, though the last aerial survey found them to be in reasonable condition and K20 Spock has been seen with a new calf several times this year in outer coast waters.

Females

J36 Alki
J56 Tofino
L54 Ino
L83 Moonlight
L90 Ballena
L94 Calypso

J36, L94, L90 are prime breeding age, L83 is currently pregnant, all have surviving offspring. J36 is mother to J52, one of the surviving “baby boom” calves. Two other mothers (J17, J28) from that cohort of calves have died.

L54 aged 45, likely menopausal. She has 2 male offspring who would become vulnerable if she died.

J56 is just 3 years-old.

Males

6 vulnerable males range in age from 10 to 31:

J27 Blackberry
J44 Moby
J49 T’ilem I’nges
L110 Midnight
L116 Finn
L117 Keta

At age 31, J27 is considered “old” by recent standards. Yet these larger males are important as they’re more likely to be selected as sires. However, J27 is not known to have fathered any calves. There are 5 males of similar age (29-31). After this, the next cohort are aged 19-21, leaving a notable absence of larger breeding-age males.

The other males range from 10 to 15 years old and are too young to be considered sexually mature.

Other whales of concern

L72 Racer is in late-stage pregnancy.

J53 Kiki
L123 Lazuli

Both aged 7, they are from the 2015 baby-boom cohort. They’re exhibiting slower-than-expected growth, which is measured by length.

J53’s mom J17 Princess Angeline died when J53 was just 3 years-old.

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