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Baby orca unwell; rule issued to keep boaters away

An orca known as L-95, right, swims with other whales from the L and K pods in the Pacific Ocean near the mouth of the Columbia River near Ilwaco on Feb. 27, 2016.
NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center
An orca known as L95, right, swims with other whales from the L and K pods in the Pacific Ocean near the mouth of the Columbia River near Ilwaco on Feb. 27, 2016.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued an emergency rule ordering commercial whale watch tours to stay farther away from an unwell baby orca to help her survive.

J56, or Tofino, as the whale is also known, was born in May 2019 to an orca known as Tsuchi, or J31.

The whale's declining condition was reported to the state by the science nonprofit SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research, which is under contract to monitor the condition of the southern resident J, K, and L pods, The Seattle Times reported.

“We first expressed concern about J56 in summer 2020 when we measured her to be thin and also noticed her skin had a paler color tone – images collected this week show us that her condition has worsened,” Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director with the team, informed the state agency Wednesday.

Dr. John Durban, from Southall Environmental Associates who works with the monitoring team, said that by comparing Tofino’s measures of condition to whales of similar age in the team’s 14-year dataset, they categorize her condition as poor, meaning she is at significantly elevated risk of death over the coming months.

That finding under new whale watch regulations adopted by Washington State in 2020 justifies extra measures to ensure Tofino and her providers have the best chance of successful feeding.

Fish and Wildlife confirmed the observations by the monitoring team and on Friday invoked an emergency rule requiring commercial whale-watch tours to keep at least one half a nautical mile away from the baby or her family, if she is with them.

Vessels can disturb the orcas and make it more difficult for them to hunt salmon, which they do by listening for the echos from echolocation clicks. Noise and disturbance by boats makes it harder for them to hear and causes the orcas to raise their voices to be heard by one another, which can sap their energy.

The southern residents frequent Puget Sound, are struggling to survive, and most pregnancies are not successful. In 2005, they were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The southern resident orca families have likely just sustained the loss of K21, the oldest of the southern resident males. He was seen severely emaciated on July 29 and has not been seen since. He is presumed dead, bringing the total population of the endangered southern residents to only 74.

The department is urging all boaters to stay well back from the southern residents over the holiday weekend.

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