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Whale Scientists Say Resident Orcas Are Mostly Missing From Salish Sea This Year

Kenneth Balcomb III
Center for Whale Research
Four members of the resident orcas J-Pod sighted earlier this month in the Salish Sea. Scientists say they are showing up in unusually small groups this year. K and L pods have hardly been sighted at all.

Whale watchers say they finally spotted some orcas off the Washington coast late last week. But experts say it’s still an alarmingly bad year for sightings of resident killer whales, which have been late to arrive and are showing up in much smaller numbers than usual.

May and June are normally the months when three pods of orcas known as the Southern Residents show up in the Salish Sea. They usually stick around in large groups through September, feasting on Chinook salmon from the Fraser River. But this year, they’ve been scarce.

“To say that they’re late, that’s like the understatement of the century,” said  Dr. Deborah Giles, with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island.  “It’s really scary.”

The center has been tracking the Southern Residents for 40 years. This year, Giles says only a fraction of the J Pod’s Orcas have been sighted occasionally. The K and L pods – which would normally mix with them – have hardly been seen at all.

“We would have expected to see groups of 20 to 80 plus resident fish-eating killer whales, and we’re only seeing family groups. Small, small chunks of the Southern Resident population,” she said.

She says only in 2013 have they seen anything like this. Then, as now, the reason seems to be poor returns of Fraser River Chinook.

“From all indications, there’s just not enough salmon for them to eat. They specialize in Chinook salmon,” said Howard Garrett, a co-founder of the Orca Network.  “The Fraser River Chinook is what they depend on most of the summer and they are very scarce this year.”

Right now, the hope is that the whales are finding Chinook further out in the ocean, where there may be stronger runs of Columbia River salmon.  

Last year, Orca aficionados celebrated a baby boom among killer whales. A bumper crop of 11 new Orcas were counted in Northwest waters. But for now, the count is delayed and there’s no telling how many have survived.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.

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