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News / Northwest

Endangered orca population at 73 after 3 whales presumed dead

By Kimberly Cauvel, Skagit Valley Herald
Published: August 9, 2019, 9:26pm

The region’s endangered Southern Resident orca population continues to decline, recently reaching 73 whales.

The nonprofit Center for Whale Research announced this week that three whales of various ages and across the three family groups, or pods, have been missing and are now presumed dead.

Those whales include a 42-year-old female from J pod, 28-year-old male from K pod and 29-year-old male from L pod.

The female is the mother orca who captured the attention of the region in mid-2018, when she carried her dead calf with her for 17 days.

She and one of the male orcas appeared in poor health for some time, according to the Center for Whale Research.

The recent deaths bring the population of the species to a low unseen since the 1970s and 1980s, after several were captured for entertainment purposes decades ago.

Whale experts say the Southern Resident orcas are struggling to survive due to a lack of food compounded by the interference of boat traffic with their ability to hunt and the accumulation of water pollutants in their bodies.

The orcas eat salmon and prefer chinook, which are also declining in some areas throughout the whales’ West Coast range. Noise from boat traffic including tanker ships, ferries and recreational boats also interferes with the whales’ ability to use echolocation to hunt for the remaining fish.

As the whales lose weight, pollutants locked up in their blubber can enter their bloodstreams and cause health problems.

Citing the contribution of stormwater runoff — rainwater that can carry harmful materials into streams and the Puget Sound — to water pollution that harms the orcas, environment groups recently challenged the legality of certain state rules.