MOUNT VERNON — While endangered Southern Resident orca whales found in the Salish Sea are rarely seen by the average person, the species continues to be in the spotlight.
Several organizations are holding events throughout June to celebrate Orca Action Month, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries is gathering input on several plans that could shape efforts to protect and understand the species.
Regional wildlife photographer Bart Rulon showcased the species with several of his photos during a Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group event held online Thursday.
Rulon and others who spend significant time on the water have seen the orcas interact with their families, their food and other wildlife including harbor porpoises.
He shared photos of one mother-son duo routinely seen together, from the time the son’s dorsal fin was small next to his mother’s, to now, with the full-grown son dwarfing his mother thanks to male orcas’ larger size.
“Orca males are major momma’s boys. They have a tendency to follow their moms around,” Rulon said.
He also described witnessing a group of orcas appearing to celebrate the birth of a calf as the sun was setting one evening.
“I’ll never forget hearing these orcas vocalizing above the water … it was a sign of hope,” Rulon said.
In an effort to prevent the species from going extinct, NOAA Fisheries announced this week its plan to approve the Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s recommendation to curtail chinook salmon fisheries in the region in order to ensure fish are available for the whales to eat.
NOAA Fisheries is taking public comment on the plan, which the Pacific Fisheries Management Council recommended in November. The comment period closes Aug. 2.
The plan includes nine actions to curb commercial and recreational fisheries if the number of chinook forecast to be available north of Oregon’s Cape Falcon falls below 966,000. That threshold is the average of the seven lowest years of available chinook since 1994.
In the region north of Cape Falcon, including within the Salish Sea, recreational chinook fishing quotas would be reduced and the spring commercial troll quota halved.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the plan would be one of the few cases where a federal agency restricts hunting or fishing of one species to benefit another that relies on it.
According to the nonprofit Center for Whale Research, there are 74 of the whales remaining in the wild across three family groups called the J, K and L pods.
Despite gaining federal protection as an endangered species in 2005, the population has continued to decline. Research has shown the whales are suffering due to a lack of their primary food source — chinook salmon — as well as water pollution and underwater noise from vessel traffic.
Research continues in an effort to pinpoint ways to help the population recover.
In April, NOAA Fisheries released a study detailing when and where the orcas eat various kinds of fish. The study confirmed the whales’ reliance on chinook salmon.
“That is their favorite food and makes up the bulk of their diet,” Rulon said while showing a photo of an orca with a large chinook in its mouth.
Also in April, NOAA Fisheries began a five-year review of the species. The findings will be published in 2025.