Two Orca Deaths And Another Dying Whale Spur Extinction Fears

SEATTLE, WA – The first time that Ken Balcomb saw a live whale was years ago when he got a volunteer job as a dishwasher aboard a ship that was going to tag whales as part of an identification project. Now more than 40 years later, he fears that the days of seeing one group of killer whales are limited.

“There is a real fear that if things don’t change this group will become extinct,” says Balcomb, who started the Center for Whale Research more than 40-years-ago.

The group is focused on the Orcas – or killer whales – that call the waters of the Pacific Northwest home.

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Balcomb is concerned most about the Southern Resident Killer Whales. This group has 74 members split among three separate pods – J, K, and L. In the early 1990s, the population of those three pods combined was around 100 whales.

In recent weeks, the J pod has witnessed the death of two members:

An announcement is expected any day that K25, a 27-year-old male, is dying. If K25 does die, he will be the 27th member of that pod to die in just about 25 years.

Pointing to the picture of Tahlequah pushing her dead calf, Balcomb says simply, “this is what extinction looks like.

“If something isn’t done, we’re not going to have this population of whales.”

Balcomb and other scientists point to another problem – the whales that survive are not having babies.

When the baby boom happened in 2014-15, 11 calves were born. Only five are still alive.

Besides Tahlequah’s calf, there haven’t been any whales born since 2015.

“The ability of this group to reproduce is failing,” Balcomb says.

A major issue, according to Balcomb and others, is that whales are starving. A seemingly ever-decreasing amount of Chinook salmon is the top of three threats to the Southern Resident Killer Whales, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.

The other two are pollution and oil spills.

Balcomb says that the salmon issue has to be addressed.

“There are significantly fewer and the ones that were there are much smaller and less numerous,” he says of salmon, noting that most come from hatcheries.

We know these whales eat salmon,” he said. “We need to solve that problem.”

Balcomb’s call is being heard.

In March, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order creating a task force to study Southern Killer Whale recovery and future sustainability.

“The problems faced by orcas and salmon are human-caused, and we as Washingtonians have a duty to protect these species,” Inslee says. “The impacts of letting these two species disappear would be felt for generations.”

Stephanie Solien is vice president of the Puget Sound Partnershp’s Leadership Council and co-chair of the task force.

“The orca dilemma is giving us a unique opportunity,” she says. “Our goal is to recover the orca, recover the salmon, and improve the quality of life for everyone.”

Balcomb, who has been warning the government about the danger to the whales for more than 25 years, is glad that the task force exists but questions how much it will be able to accomplish.

“More needs to be done, a lot more,” he says. “The Puget Sound is a superfund site, the rivers where the salmon live are being polluted. We know what needs to be done and we’re not doing it.

“I’m giving up hope,” he said.

Balcomb said efforts to bolster the chances of orca survival shouldn’t come at the expense of whale watching excursions that are popular in places like the San Juan Islands and Vancouver, B.C..

“These trips don’t get in the way of the whales, they don’t disturb them,” he says. “The operators keep a respectful distance and it’s important that people know what’s at risk.

“I’ve been very lucky to have worked with with these whales for more than 40 years. We know each and every one. They are very special.”

The threat to the Southern Resident Killer Whales does not apply to all killer whales. Many are called “transients” because they are not dependent on one food source like the Southern Residents are with chinook salmon.

Photo courtesy Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale Research

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