The orcas we know and love are finally back – will they stay all summer?

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Southern Resident killer whales in search of Chinook salmon might give up and go somewhere else if they don’t find enough to eat.

Star (J46) in 2016 with her mother Polaris (J28) and brother Dipper (J54). Photo credit: Center for Whale Research

In 47 years of observation by the Center for Whale Research (CWR), this is the first year that there were no sightings of any of the Southern Resident orcas in May. Last summer they were barely in the inland waterways around the San Juan Islands in Washington State or the neighboring Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada.
The dismal and depressing realization that what CWR senior scientist Ken Balcomb has been warning everyone who would listen has come to pass;  the lack of a dependable source of Chinook salmon means that these whales will starve to extinction or just change their summer feeding strategy entirely and go elsewhere.
But there is hope, and not just for the whales – people are empowering themselves to help fix the salmon crisis. There’s been a shift in the public psyche as people give up on governments that have dragged their feet for decades, and instead ask themselves what they can do to help…then do it.
Case in point – what is missing from this video?

Where are the hordes of boats? Even when more boats accompanied these whales later there was little to no detectable underwater engine noise reported on hydrophones. The Pacific Whale Watch Association has self-imposed voluntary reductions in speed and distance from the whales and spend more time with the other local orcas – the Transients, which are dynamic and interesting orcas in their own light.
While the boats are dedicated to making it easier for the orcas to capture salmon by reducing engine noise, that is only part of the problem. Salmon have been scarce, and lack of food is affecting both birth rates and maternal deaths.
Two thirds of the pregnancies fail, often in the last months of the 17 month gestation.
From the Center for Whale Research:

The females are getting pregnant; however, two thirds to three quarters of the conceptions apparently result in miscarriage, although this statistic may in part be due to a natural predator response to a limiting carrying capacity of prey.
It is the late-term miscarriages that are most risky to the mother’s survival, and we have seen an increase of these mortalities in recent years with necropsies evidencing birth complications and prolapsed uterus as contributing to death.
This grisly observation argues for a year-round versus episodic sufficient supply of suitable prey to feed these large iconic mammals through a pregnancy cycle – an eight thousand pound pregnant female whale requires about 4-5% of her body weight per day (320-400 pounds!) of suitable prey.

In the summer and fall of 2016 researchers and naturalists saw this happen as a dedicated orca mother and her dependent calf slowly died, leaving only her older calf, Star (J46) alive.
When her mother and last brother (a previous brother had been found dead, having barely survived birth) were losing their struggle against hunger and disease, Star did her best. She brought them whatever salmon she could find and supported them until they took their last breaths.
Read this compelling story on the Stranding Network.

Graphic by Haze Summer

It’s clear – if we don’t restore the salmon we’ll lose the whales along with the dependable spring salmon that characterizes life in the Pacific Northwest.

How to help (more suggestions can be found following at the bottom of the page here):

Sign the petition to remove obsolete dams

If the lower Snake River dams were breached, it would double or triple survival rates, restoring many millions of fish to the Columbia Basin.
• Give the orcas a fighting chance to recover by increasing their food supply.
• Breaching costs the state nothing. The first two dams can be breached for the cost of another EIS estimated at $80 million; 5 years to completion

Save Our Wild Salmon

With its historic productivity, low human population, and remaining pockets of large, high, pristine and well protected habitat, the Columbia and Snake River Basin represents our nation’s best opportunity to restore the large numbers of Chinook salmon that endangered, hungry orcas need to survive and recover.

David Suzuki Foundation

The fate of the Salish Sea orcas hangs in the balance.
These 76 orcas — also known as the southern resident killer whales — are Canada’s most endangered marine mammal. Immediate actions are needed to set up refuges, reduce acoustic noise, address pollution and protect chinook salmon, the whales’ primary prey. Climate change and a projected seven-fold increase in tanker traffic from the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion make immediate action more urgent than ever.

The Pacific Salmon Foundation

The Pacific Salmon Foundation was established in 1987 as an independent, nongovernmental, charitable organization to protect, conserve and restore wild Pacific salmon populations in British Columbia and the Yukon. Today, the Foundation galvanizes the breadth of vested stakeholders to support Pacific salmon from stream to estuary to ocean.
The Foundation: 
Raises money and makes grants to volunteer community groups that conserve and restore streams across the province.Manages watershed initiatives in British Columbia that catalyze industry, First Nations, provincial and federal governments, and other non-profits.
Advances science to improve the understanding of factors that limit the abundance of Pacific salmon.
Works with government to prioritize and facilitate strategic salmon conservation in the province.

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