Southern Resident orcas have faced a lot since being designated for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2005 and a de-listing petition that was denied in 2013, but pollution and a dwindling food source could spell disaster for the struggling whales, while other orca numbers are increasing.
Puget Sound Southern Residents, identified by researchers as the J, K and L pods, numbered at 140 in the early 1960’s. They were designated for ESA protection after their numbers dropped precipitously to 71, mostly attributable to being captured and sold to theme parks before it became illegal.
Under ESA protection and without threat of being snatched from their social community and trained for human entertainment the orca population thrived for a few decades climbing to almost 100 by the mid-1990s.
Today there are only 79 Southern Resident orcas remaining in the wild.
They are genetically distinct from other killer whales, because they have their own language, travel and breed only within their group, are socially unique, eat Chinook salmon almost exclusively, while spending their summers entirely in Puget Sound waters.
However, the reality is these rare whales won’t survive without reproducing and they haven’t had an offspring in the past two years that has survived more than a month.
The decline of endangered Chinook salmon, not boat interference is the main problem of the many facing Southern Resident orcas, claims expert Ken Balcomb, who founded Center for Whale Research.
Balcomb knows the whales better than anyone, according to a report by King5 News earlier this month. He has documented births, deaths and taken thousands of photographs for over 40 years. He has become the go-to guy for federal agencies when developing management plans for Southern Residents.
According to Balcomb’s research, many of the orcas are four decades old.
One female called Granny or J2 is estimated to be 103 years old.
“We’ve got less than 20 reproductive age females at present and not many coming up through the ranks. We can’t have a population without reproduction,” said Balcomb.
This year’s federal report doesn’t offer much encouragement for the orcas’ future, because the focus leans too heavily on protecting orcas from whale watching boats, noise and pollution without addressing food source.
Even if the whales had clean, noiseless waters to live in, without food they won’t survive.
“I’m disappointed,” said Balcomb. “It’s a very glossy summary for the public and Congress to look at how the money was spent.”
Chinook salmon once numbered around 30 million and made their way up the Columbia-Snake Rivers to spawn every year, but the installation of four dams over the years and habitat destruction has reduced the population to a dismal 1 percent.
All Chinook species are listed as endangered or have already gone extinct.
Scientists have recommended removal or partial breaching of dams over the Columbia-Snake River system for over 20 years, with no results.
The dwindling supply of Chinook salmon could be the fatal blow to rare and unique Puget Sound Southern Resident orcas.
Balcomb keeps hoping for a new baby, which takes 17 months to be born after procreation, but it’s hard to remain optimistic under current circumstance.
“When we get to 70, I’m going to stop counting because nobody’s paying attention.”