Lack of salmon pushes Salish Sea orca population toward 50-year low
FRIDAY HARBOR, Washington; VICTORIA, British Columbia––Orca whale watchers throughout the Salish Sea region and orca enthusiasts worldwide are in mourning over the reported probable death of baby orca J60, a male, believed to have been born on Christmas Day 2003.
First seen on December 26, 2023, near Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle, about 60 miles from the southern end of the Salish Sea, J60 apparently started north toward the Canadian border with his family.
Vanished on long journey north
J60 was reportedly seen at least seven times during the next two weeks.
The Salish Sea, including Puget Sound, stretches from Olympia, Washington, on the lower Hood Canal, 340 miles north up Puget Sound, across the Strait of San de Fuca, and up the Georgia Strait to Campbell River, British Columbia.
Three closely related orca whale families, dubbed the J, K, and L pods under an international naming system, frequent the Salish Sea, along with the transient T pod, which normally hunts sharks and other large prey in the Pacific Ocean, but occasionally ventures into the Salish Sea to hunt seals, sea lions, and sometimes visiting grey whales.
Four weeks later, J pod reached the San Juan Channel, between San Juan Island, Washington, and Victoria, British Columbia.
“The only whale missing was J60”
The Friday Harbor-based Center for Whale Research “saw the J pod of the endangered southern resident orcas traveling and socializing in San Juan Channel. The only whale missing was J60,” summarized Seattle Times staff reporter Isabelle Breda.
“The Center for Whale Research is sad to report that the youngest member of J pod, J60, was missing during our most recent encounter with the pod,” confirmed the Center for Whale Research.
“On January 27, researchers conducted a photo ID survey of J pod in San Juan Channel,” the Center for Whale Research elaborated.
“During the encounter, photos were obtained of all other members of the pod, including all potential mothers for J60, but J60 himself was not seen. Given his young age, it is extremely unlikely that J60 was off on his own for the entire duration of the encounter.”
“We believe J60 is likely deceased”
“While our protocols require at least three full censuses of the group to confirm mortality,” the Center for Whale Research said, “we now believe that J60 is likely deceased.
“The mortality rate for young calves, especially those born to first time mothers, is very high in the southern residents,” as the J, K, and L orca pods are collectively known, the Center for Whale Research added, citing “the generally poor nutritional status of southern residents,” who “need abundant, large chinook salmon if they are going to be able to raise their calves to maturity, and keep the population going.”
The current southern resident orca population is believed to be 74, barely more than the 71 orcas identified by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, when captures for marine mammal park exhibition were halted by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, reinforced a year later by the Endangered Species Act.
“Struggling to survive three threats”
“Generally,” wrote Breda, “the southern residents are struggling to survive in the face of at least three threats: pollution, lack of chinook salmon in their foraging range, and underwater noise that makes it harder for them to hunt and communicate with each other.
“Researchers have found,” summarized Breda, that “two-thirds of southern resident pregnancies end in loss because of lack of food. More recently, studies have found the southern resident females have less hunting success than their neighbors up north, and that the shrinking, increasingly inbred population of southern residents could be plummeting toward extinction.”
What can be done to help the southern resident orcas, Center for Whale Research director Michael Weiss told Breda, “is try to get them more fish. They’re going to need it if we want fewer calves dying.”
Where have all the salmon gone?
Farther south, along the Oregon coast, the primary culprits for salmon scarcity are the lingering consequences of severe overfishing that killed commercial salmon fishing along the Columbia River circa 1900, combined with the ongoing effects of old hydroelectric dams blocking salmon spawning areas along the Columbia River and tributaries.
Global warming is also damaging salmon habitat.
Politicians and a variety of state and federal agencies, resisting a growing mountain of science that shows many of the 80-to-100-year-old dams have to go to effect salmon restoration, tend to blame other native wildlife.
Killing alleged salmon predators has hurt more than helped
Attempts to purge other wildlife to try to help salmon recovery have often backfired.
Frustrated fishers also tend to blame native wildlife, especially harbor seals and California sea lions.
(See Who shot pregnant harbor seals? Thomas Sewid encouraged it and Speeding boater tried to hit sea lions on the Columbia River near Portland.)
Sasquatch had nothing to do with it
Thomas Sewid, a Canadian First Nations tribal commercial fisher, in 2017 founded the so-called Pacific Balance Pinniped Society and a parallel entity, Pacific Balance Marine Management, to encourage First Nations members to kill seals and sea lions, including, Sewid says, by sending gift cards to help First Nations members willing to shoot seals to shoot more seals.
After almost a year of promoting tourism in search of the mythical Sasquatch, of which no fossil or forensic evidence has ever been found, Sewid recently returned to encouraging seal and sea lion massacres, claiming credit for a reported decline in the harbor seal population along the British Columbia coast from circa 110,000 in 2020 to perhaps 98,000 now.
Science, however, indicates that the harbor seals are also casualties of salmon scarcity, both directly, because the seals have less to eat, and indirectly, because the transient orcas, finding fewer large fish, are hitting harbor seals harder, more often.
Where the salmon have really gone
Amid the ongoing heated debate, Paciﬁc Wild, self-described as “a Canadian charity that protects wildlife and their habitat in the Great Bear Rainforest and beyond,” headquartered in Victoria, the British Columbia provincial Canada, on January 18, 2024 issued a largely ignored media release trying to draw attention to where all the salmon have really gone, at least from B.C. waters.
“The pre-publication ﬁndings of Fisheries & Oceans Canada’s new enhanced monitoring program of salmon bycatch in the Paciﬁc region conﬁrmed,” Pacific Wild began, “that an estimated 28,117 salmon were caught, killed, and discarded as bycatch in the groundﬁsh trawl ﬁshery” by trawling licence holders in the 2022/2023 ﬁshing season.
“Chinook salmon was the primary species caught,” Pacific Wild summarized, “representing 93% of the total salmon catch.”
Enough salmon “bycatch” wasted to feed 3-4 orcas for an entire year
“According to the ﬁndings of the Department of Fisheries & Oceans report,” Pacific Wild said, “over 20,000 chinook salmon were likely thrown overboard,” as unwanted and unsalable bycatch, “while 3,700 were landed and subsequently discarded as offal.
“Chinook salmon are the main food source for critically endangered southern resident killer whales,” Pacific Wild reminded.
“The chinook eliminated by the midwater trawl ﬁshery during the 2022/2023 ﬁshing season could have fed three or four southern resident killer whales for an entire year,” Pacific Wild estimated.
“An appalling waste”
Assessed Pacific Wild marine specialist Sydney Dixon, “This is an appalling waste for not just a salmon species that is listed as threatened and endangered in many British Columbia and U.S. rivers, but also when the survival of the few remaining Southern Resident killer whales is at stake.”
Added Pacific Wild conservation advisor Ian McAllister, “These salmon ﬁgures are alarming enough but what would we learn if the Department of Fisheries & Oceans implemented ‘enhanced monitoring’ for countless other species being indiscriminately caught and destroyed by the British Columbia groundﬁsh trawl industry, such as herring, halibut and rockﬁsh.
“We are choosing a wasteful ﬁshery that is making pet food and fast food ﬁsh sticks over the future of our wild salmon,” McAllister charged.
Want to help save orcas? Choose barbecued tofu sticks over fish sticks.
(See Barbecued tofu made easy.)