By: Alicia Graef
September 29, 2017
Highly endangered orcas in the Pacific Northwest continue to face a host of threats to their survival, and now they’ve suffered another heartbreaking loss with the death of a young male.
These orcas, otherwise known as the southern resident killer whales (SRKW), live in three distinct pods (J,K and L), who travel through Puget Sound, the Straight of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca during the summer months before migrating to open ocean in the winter.
Tragically, even with live captures being banned, federal protection in the U.S. and Canada and millions spent on research and recovery efforts, they’ve yet to make a comeback.
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This week, the Center for Whale Research, which keeps an official census of these orcas, broke devastating news with an announcement that a two-year-old male, Sonic (J52), had passed away. He is believed to have died from malnutrition.
According to CWR, he was last seen on September 15, looking lethargic, while photos taken at the time showed severe “peanut-head” syndrome (when their head becomes concave around the blowhole), which is associated with impending death. He was with his mother and another adult male, who were tending to him miles away from the rest of the pod, and was believed to be “hours, if not minutes” away from death at the time. His mother and the male were spotted days later, but he was gone.
Sonic was part of the so-called baby boom for these orcas that began in 2014, but as CWR noted, with his passing three of the six whales born in the J pod during that boom have died, along with two mothers and a great-grandmother.
Their population has dropped from 83 as of last year, to just 76 individuals today (not counting Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium), and time to save them is quickly running out.
While they continue to face a number of compounding threats ranging from boat traffic and noise to toxic pollutants, many believe the biggest problem now is a lack of food. Their main food source, Chinook salmon, is also endangered due to habitat loss, overfishing, and having their migration and spawning grounds blocked by hydroelectric dams.
“If something isn’t done to enhance SRKW prey availability almost immediately (it takes a few years for a Chinook salmon to mature and reproduce, and it takes about twelve years for a female SRKW to mature and reproduce), extinction of this charismatic resident population of killer whales is inevitable in the calculable future,” wrote Kenneth Balcolm, CWR’s founder.
Advocates for these orcas have pushed to expand critical habitat, with widespread public support, and are continuing to call for immediate action to help them survive, particularly calling for the removal of four lower Snake River dams in Washington and on the Klamath River in Oregon and Northern California, which is expected to have a huge impact on salmon recovery. Hopefully Sonic’s death will increase public pressure and help garner the political will to accomplish more protective measures.
For more on how to help, check out the Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative, Center for Whale Research, Orca Network and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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