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Expert: Two more ailing orcas expected to die by summer

A photo taken of J-17 on New Year's Eve showing "peanut head," which indicates starvation.
Center for Whale Research
A photo taken of J-17 on New Year's Eve showing "peanut head," which indicates starvation.

Last year was bleak for the critically endangered Southern Resident orca population, and 2019 is showing little reprieve so far. A regional expert on the pods says two whales, J-17 and K-25, are ailing and likely will die by summer.

Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, said both whales are experiencing "peanut head," a misshapen head and neck that is caused by starvation.

“I am confident we are going to lose them sometime before summer,” Balcomb told The Seattle Times.

Both whales come from families that have experienced loss recently.

The 27-year-old K-25 lost his mother, K-13, in 2017 and is not successfully foraging on his own, The Times reports. Balcomb said in an email to KNKX on Wednesday that the whale hasn’t been spotted in Haro Strait lately, so there is no update on his current condition.

J-17 is the 42-year-old mother of J-35, or Tahlequah, who caught worldwide attention when she carried her dead calf for several weeks in August; the calf survived just under an hour after birth. 

Balcomb says the loss of J-17 would be especially troublesome, given that she is still at an age to reproduce. The Southern Resident pods haven’t seen a successful pregnancy in three years.

There are currently 74 Southern Residents left across three pods in the Salish Sea, the lowest number in decades. The total took a hit after three orcas died over the summer, including J-35.

In December, Gov. Jay Inslee introduced his proposed two-year budget that included $1.1 billion for water-quality improvement and other measures related to orca recovery. Much of the proposal mirrored an extensive list of recommendations released by the Orca Recovery Task Force, convened by Inslee in May.

Some have argued for swift action in the form of dam removal.

Killer whale scientists across the state sent a letter to Inslee Oct. 15, urging the governor to breach four dams on the lower Snake River.

“[I]ncreasing the abundance of spring, summer, and fall populations of Chinook salmon in Northwest marine waters is vital to ensure orca survival,” the letter states. “We write to emphasize several critical details about Chinook abundance that at this time may be underappreciated by Task Force members but are nevertheless essential to the success of its work.” 

More Chinook salmon is needed on a year-round basis. Removing the dams would provide immediate and permanent restoration of Chinook access to 5,000 miles of upstream habitat, the scientists have said.

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.