Low rainfall leads to an odd and changing year for salmon, killer whales and people

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It has been an interesting year for observing the behavior of Southern Resident killer whales, chum salmon and humans in the Puget Sound region. Weather played a significant role. Two weeks ago, all three pods of endangered orcas spent four days together in Puget Sound, something we have not seen in years. Chum salmon, which the whales feed upon in the fall, appeared to be on a stop-and-go migration schedule because of the unusual rainfall pattern. And, as always, the activities of people must be noted within this ecological context. […]

Killer whale census shows another down year, with three deaths and two births

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Three deaths and two births. Over the past year, the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population has declined by a total of one, according to the annual census report submitted yesterday by the Center for Whale Research. Now the number of whales in all three pods stands at 73, down from 74 last year and declining from 98 animals the past 25 years. The births of J59 last February and K45 in May have been widely reported, along with the death of the much-loved K21, a 35-year-old male named Cappuccino. […]

Salmon study sparks controversy

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Occasionally, this space includes reports and essays from guest writers on the subject of Puget Sound ecosystem recovery. Biologist and author Eric Wagner has this look at the controversy surrounding a recent study of salmon numbers in the Salish Sea.  By Eric Wagner A couple of weeks ago, the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences published a research article from the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia (UBC). The article, first-authored by a hydroacoustician named Mei Sato, looked at the abundance of Chinook salmon during […]

Orca census shows some improvement, but many whales still die before their time

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The annual census of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, submitted yesterday to the federal government, shows three births and one death from mid-2020 to mid-2021. Along with the new census report, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research sadly confirmed the death of L47, a 47-year-old female named Marina, who has been apparently missing since early summer. Marina was last seen by CWR biologists on Feb. 27 in Swanson Channel, north of the San Juan Islands, Ken told me. She was later missing from observations by Canadian biologists […]

Young orcas appear to develop friendships, not unlike primates — including humans

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UPDATE, FRIDAY, JULY 2: K pod arrived in the San Juan Islands yesterday, so the wait is over for the Southern Residents to arrive this summer. The whales came south through Rosario Strait yesterday morning, according to reports, and then they traveled along the south side of Lopez Island and over to the west side of San Juan Island. How long the K pod whales will stay in inland waters — and when they might be joined by J and L pods — is anyone’s guess. (See “Orca census” below, […]

Do we know enough to do anything about all the seals and sea lions in Puget Sound?

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Scientists have known for years that Chinook salmon are important to southern resident orcas, but Chinook are not the only fish the whales eat. At the moment, chum salmon are returning to Puget Sound, and recent orca sightings suggest that the whales may now be feeding on chum. Harbor seals also eat Chinook salmon, but also chum, coho and other fish. They seem fond of smaller fish like herring and juvenile salmon. Oh, what a tangled food web we weave… Can we really say that seals are stealing the lunch […]

Orca census: One death in January, but no births were reported until September

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UPDATE, Oct. 6 The newest calf among the Southern Resident killer whales was officially designated J58 after being seen alive and healthy on Sunday. The calf is the offspring of J49, a 15-year-old female named Eclipse who has one surviving calf, J51 or Nova. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research had been withholding the official designation until CWR staffers could be sure the newborn had survived and was healthy. In Sunday’s encounter off San Juan Island, CWR staffers Dave Ellifrit and and Katie Jones reported, “Both J41 and […]

Absent orcas: Most of the whales simply are not around to be counted at this time

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UPDATE, JULY 3: Two new reports worth checking out: Center for Whale Research Encounter #31 Orca Network Whale Sighting Report, July 2 —– “So far, no new babies to report.” That’s the latest word from Ken Balcomb regarding the southern resident orcas, the three pods of endangered whales that once frequented Puget Sound but lately seem hard to find. July 1 marks the date of the annual killer whale census, a project carried out by Ken and his fellow researchers at the Center for Whale Research. Each year, Ken accounts […]

Social scientists analyze public reactions to orca crisis

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Social scientists at Oregon State University have been analyzing a trove of more than 17,000 public comments sent to the Washington state governor’s southern resident orca recovery task force. The researchers have added the comments to a keyword database to look at public emotions and perceptions around the issue of orca declines. The orca task force was created in March 2018 after media reports of sick and dying whales prompted widespread public concern and led to a groundswell of activity to try to save the endangered whales from extinction. Since […]

Missing orca named ‘Mega’ lived a long, productive life, says Ken Balcomb

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A 43-year-old male orca named Mega, now missing and presumed dead, was one of the first new calves that researcher Ken Balcomb spotted when he began his extensive census of Southern Resident killer whales back in 1976. Ken didn’t know it at the time, but the baby orca — one of nine born in 1977 — would grow to become a large, powerful whale, living up to his name by fathering at least 20 offspring of his own. Designated L41, Mega was around throughout Ken’s career at the Center for […]

Seals and sea lions may be slowing salmon recovery, hurting orcas

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Increased consumption of Chinook salmon by seals and sea lions in the Salish Sea “could be masking the success of coastwide salmon recovery efforts,” according to a new study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports. Endangered resident orcas are said to be declining in part due to a lack of available Chinook, the orcas’ preferred prey. Read the article by PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan in Salish Sea Currents.

Update: Killer whale miscarriages linked to low food supply

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Our 2016 article “Killer whale miscarriages linked to low food supply” provided an early look at a study published this week in the journal PLOS ONE. PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan wrote the article based on research that was presented at the 2016 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference, and it remains a helpful summary of the newly published findings. Scientists have found that Puget Sound’s endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales are experiencing a high rate of miscarriages in large part because they are not getting enough food. The whales depend primarily […]