A Southern Resident killer whale carrying her dead calf.
Photo Courtesy of Talyor Shedd/Soundwatch. Taken under NMFS permit #21114.

A team of marine mammal experts reviewed the likely cause of death of killer whales found from Alaska to Hawaii between 2004 & 2013. The study published recently about these 53 strandings includes four members of the Southern Resident killer whale community (J, K and L pods): Two calves who died within hours of birth, and before a unique pod ID was given, plus two well-known youngsters from L pod: L98 (a 7-year-old male also known as Luna) and L112 (3-year-old female, Sooke) who both died as a result of “trauma.”

The team reviewing the pathology reports of these 53 orcas found that “vessel strike-related trauma” was the likely cause of death of six animals – including L98, Luna – and noted that this threat poses a real risk to the endangered Southern Residents, as several are suspected (or known) to have died this way over the last 40 years. In fact, the study did not rule out vessel strike as the possible cause of death of L112, Sooke.

Since 2014 – beyond the range of this study – three more Southern Residents have been found: J34, aka Doublestuf (son of Oreo) was 18 when he died after a presumed, but unverified boat strike; L95 (Nigel, aged 20) succumbed to an infection after a tracking tag was attached to his dorsal fin by government scientists; and the double heartbreak of J32, Rhapsody, aged 18, whose female calf died before birth, ultimately causing her mother’s death.

Alarmingly, since studies of the Southern Residents began in 1976, 139 individuals have died – not including calves dying at, or shortly after birth. Of most concern is that in the last five years, 13 of 16 deaths were either youngsters or those in the prime of their lives, rather than the elderly.

The review of 53 stranded orcas determined a cause of death for 22 and found that malnutrition was a factor in the death of 12. Malnutrition is also the most significant threat to the Southern Residents, who have struggled to find enough food since the mid-1990s. Wild Pacific salmon once numbered in their billions in the Pacific Northwest, but after decades of overfishing and habitat loss, they’re at a fraction of their historic levels today, and this drastic decline is mirrored clearly in the ever-declining population of these salmon-dependent Southern Residents.

12 years of research by the University of Washington – through analyses of orcas’ poop – shows that 69% of detectable pregnancies in the Southern Residents result in miscarriage, or death of a calf immediately after birth. J32, Rhapsody (who stranded after her calf died) likely had two previous failed pregnancies and left no surviving calves. These unsustainable losses can be directly attributed to insufficient Chinook – the salmon species making up to 80% of their diet.

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To save these whales we need to save wild salmon. We need to make changes to the way our Pacific salmon fisheries are managed, which likely means less fishing in the short-term. Misguided attempts to supplement wild salmon fisheries with hatchery-raised fish has created new problems, and so we’ll also need to address this, and fix other damages we’ve inflicted on our ecosystems, by removing dams, restoring habitat, and preventing pollution from entering our rivers. In the meantime, we need to allocate these whales their fair share of the annual Chinook harvest.

Southern Resident killer whales who die due to malnutrition vanish without a trace. Their bodies do not present for an examination, and so they won’t appear on any future pathology report about what’s killing them. However, we don’t need to perform this saddest of tasks to determine their cause of death. Decades of studies and tribal observations of salmon and orcas provide this answer.

No fish, no blackfish.