Taken under NMFS permit #26288 | Wild Orca.

The plight of a 2-year-old killer whale orphaned when her pregnant mother drowned in shallow Vancouver Island waters has captivated the world’s media as attempts to rescue and reunite with her pod continue.

Yet just 100 miles south, when 10-month-old J54 Dipper lost his emaciated mom, only his family tried to save him. His sister, J46 Star, brought him salmon and, with an aunt, tried in vain to hold him above water. J54 died surrounded by family, including his possible father.

This tragedy barely made the news in 2016 because the Southern Resident killer whales have been fighting for survival since the early 2000s. Across the planet, we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, with species disappearing before we can study them. Scientists refer to these losses as “dark extinction.” Now, a new study has coined the term “bright extinction,” with the Southern Resident killer whales as its poster child. Yet, for decades, we have known what we need to know to turn their fortunes around: more food.

Co-evolving with Chinook salmon formed the Southern Resident killer whales’ unique fishing culture and language. With the whales’ fate inextricably linked to Chinook, they will not change their diet, however convenient that might be for us.

The family of the newly orphaned calf are Bigg’s killer whales, an increasing population with a plentiful supply of marine mammals. Bigg’s females may have calves every 2 or 3 years, some getting pregnant while still nursing a young calf. In contrast, with insufficient prey, the Southern Resident killer whales struggle to stay pregnant or raise healthy calves. If we could increase their prey, we could turn this around.

The new study clearly outlines a way forward. The path will be bumpy; taking action after years of inaction will call for hard choices. But doesn’t this population deserve a chance to thrive, just like the newly orphaned calf?