Three southern resident orcas go missing

Lummi Nation spiritualist Richard Solomon offers a prayer for orcas, including J17 and K25, on a private beach in the San Juan Islands.

SEATTLE — Three more southern resident orcas are reported missing and presumed dead, according to the Center for Whale Research.

Ken Balcomb, founding director of the center, said the missing whales are J17, K25 and L84. In his annual population survey, Balcomb reported the population of endangered southern residents is now 73.

Because of the scarcity of suitable chinook-salmon prey, the southern residents also now rarely visit the core waters of their designated critical habitat: Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the inland reach of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

It has been in their summer waters, and L pod has not been in the inland waters of the Salish Sea this summer.

J17 is a 42-year-old J pod matriarch and mother of Tahlequah (J35), who carried her dead calf for an unprecedented 17 days last year. She was reportedly not in good body condition last winter, perhaps from stress. She is survived by two daughters, J35 and J53, and son J44.

Her death puts her family at risk because older female whales help feed their families. Sons in particular are as much as eight times more likely to die within a year if they lose their mothers.

Also missing is 28-year-old K25, an adult male who was not in good body condition last winter. He is survived by two sisters, K20 and K27, and a brother, K34.

A 29-year-old male, L84, has been missing all summer and was the last surviving member of a matriline of 11 whales.

The population of southern residents is the lowest it has been since the live-capture era ended in the 1970s.

The whales are declining because of lack of adequate food, particularly chinook salmon; disturbance and noise by boats; and toxins in their environment.

For this particular J pod family, tragedy just keeps hitting. Tahlequah has now lost both the baby she carried last summer and her mother.

“I feel just heart-crushing sadness,” said Snow McCormick, an artist and co-founder of PNW Protectors, a nonprofit based on San Juan Island dedicated to orca recovery. “I think about J35 and what she is going through, and now she has to be a mother to her mother’s children.

“We need an extinction rebellion, a tsunami of people saying they are not going to just let this happen silently. We are not going to lose these salmon and these whales. We are all better than this.”

The intergenerational loss among J17’s family also was all too familiar for Lummi families whose prosperity, well-being and cultural survival depends on the Salish Sea, said Raynell Morris, senior policy adviser in the Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office of the Lummi Indian Business Council. “It mirrors what is happening in our community, with multiple deaths, back to back in our families. We understand their pain. We share it. It is our reality here.”

Lynne Barre has led orca recovery for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for more than a decade. She has a pack of orca trading cards from the Seattle Aquarium and Wednesday morning took out the cards for J17, K25 and L84 and just held and looked at them for a while, and then left them on her desk. It’s been two hard consecutive summers for the agency. Last year, with the death of Tahlequah’s baby, and another L pod whale, L92, and J50, a young whale who slowly starved to death all summer, and now three more orcas dead this summer.

It’s also been difficult to get necessary research done with the whales staying away. “I hope it is because they are finding salmon somewhere, whether it is Columbia River runs, or a variety of different runs,” Barre said. “If they are adapting to changes in their environment, that is a good thing.”

She is considering whether NOAA scientists will need to relocate their base of operations to follow the whales to the outer coast.

Some scientists outside NOAA already are making plans. “If they won’t come to us, we may go to them,” said Deborah Giles of the nonprofit Wild Orca and the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology. Center researchers are studying orca scat to determine stress levels, and how much the whales are getting to eat and from what sources, and more.

For many, the news confirmed what they had feared for many weeks. “I’m numb,” Giles said. Her concerns now are for Tahlequah. “She has a lot of mouths relying on her … But she is a good mom,” Giles said. “That she carried that baby for 17 days shows her deep connection to her family. That is going to help support her now with the loss of her mom.”

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