The southern resident orca population, which frequents the Salish Sea, was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005. The population is now at 85 whales, far below the recovery goal.
Weeks after the first new orca calf of 2016 was seen among the southern resident orca population, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the start of a five-year status review of the species.
The southern resident orca population, which frequents the Salish Sea and the Washington and Oregon coasts, was listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2005.
With eight calves documented during 2015’s “baby boom” and the addition of the calf in mid-January, the population is now at 85 whales, according to the Center for Whale Research.
That’s three whales fewer than when the federal government acknowledged the population’s decline in 2005, one fewer than during the last five-year status review, and far below the recovery goal.
“The big question now is whether these calves will survive to contribute to the population themselves,” NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein said.
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Howard Garrett, who leads the Orca Network, said of the nine calves born in the past 13 months, observers have determined three are males and one is a female.
While having an abundance of calves is a good thing, more females are needed to ensure reproduction continues, Garrett said.
The population lost a female last year when one went missing. The whale, called Ophelia, was estimated to be about 50 years old, Garrett said.
According to the Recovery Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales, orcas could be removed from the Endangered Species list if their population grows at least 2.3 percent per year for 28 years. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service released the plan in 2008.
Although the five-year review is just getting started, orca-recovery coordinator Lynne Barre said it’s clear the whales are not yet meeting that goal.
“Our review will tell us where we are on making progress toward this criteria, as well as all of the other criteria we have in our recovery plan,” she said.
The status-review report released in 2011 stated that recovery of the whales is a “long-term effort that requires cooperation and coordination of West Coast communities from California to British Columbia. It will take many years to fill key data gaps and assess the effectiveness of ongoing recovery actions for the whales, salmon, and their habitat, and to observe significant increases in the Southern Resident population.”
Major goals outlined in that report included updating vessel rules, filling in data gaps, evaluating the health of the whales and better understanding their habitat use.
Milstein said NOAA, in partnership with state fish and wildlife managers, has made progress on each of those goals.
Researchers are evaluating how vessel noise affects whales, they are sampling their fecal matter and they have tagged some of the whales to track their movement during winter.
“Before the tagging, that was a real mystery — we knew they left the inland waters in the winter, but we didn’t know much about where they went,” Milstein said.
The tagging has shown important habitat areas for the whales.
The southern resident orcas spend several months of the summer and fall in the Salish Sea. The population is composed of three family groups, called the J, K, and L pods.
The marine waters along Skagit County’s western edge are included in the species’ critical habitat.
When the National Marine Fisheries Service designated critical habitat in 2006, it said the “U.S. portion of the Southern Strait of Georgia, and areas directly offshore of Skagit and Whatcom counties” are important summer territories for the whales.
Deception Pass, the area around the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca are also important orca habitat.
Part of what draws the whales here is the abundance of salmon migrating between the Skagit River and marine waters.
Whale and salmon experts have said the health of the orca population hinges on the health of chinook salmon, which the whales rely on for about 80 percent of their food.
In the spring of 2015, several groups formed the Orca Salmon Alliance, which is dedicated to raising awareness of both orcas and chinook, and is lobbying for their recovery.
Garrett said he thinks the most important factor in the whales’ recovery is whether the salmon they eat can withstand the changing climate.
“They (the orcas) are suffering death by a thousand cuts, so every Band-Aid in the form of restored river, estuary or wetland habitat or reduced toxicity, or dam removal, has a beneficial effect, but as temperatures rise we desperately need to provide their chosen prey — chinook salmon — with cold, high-altitude habitat, and free-flowing rivers to enhance access to those spawning beds,” he said in an email.
In order to restore the orcas, Garrett said he thinks there needs to be more salmon habitat restoration along the West Coast, including the removal of the four lower Snake River dams. The Snake River is the largest tributary to the Columbia River.
NOAA has also said saving salmon is a key to the whales’ recovery. It pointed that out again Wednesday in the release of its five-year action plan.
The plan highlights work NOAA plans to do to help save the whales, which is one of eight protected species NOAA considers most at risk of extinction, according to the “Species in the Spotlight: Survive to Thrive” initiative the agency launched last year.
The plan states that between now and 2020, more work is needed to save salmon, protect that whales’ habitat, keep boaters at a distance and educate the public.