Baby orca J56 is ailing and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued an emergency rule ordering commercial whale-watch tours to stay farther away to help her survive.
Tofino, as the baby is also known, was born in May 2019 to J pod. She is the second offspring of Tsuchi (J31).
Her declining condition was first reported to WDFW by the science nonprofit SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research, or SR3.
“We first expressed concern about J56 in summer 2020 when we measured her to be thin and also noticed her skin had a paler color tone — images collected this week show us that her condition has worsened,” Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director of SR3, informed WDFW in an email Wednesday.
The team is under contract with the agency to use a drone to noninvasively monitor the condition of the southern resident J, K and L pods. The whales have traditionally used the San Juan Islands as a prime summer foraging area, but as Chinook decline in B.C.’s Fraser River, they are far less frequently seen in Puget Sound.
Dr. John Durban, from Southall Environmental Associates, who works closely with SR3, said that by comparing J56’s measurements to young whales of similar age in the team’s 14-year dataset, they categorize J56’s condition as poor. That means she is at significantly elevated risk of death over the coming months, Durban said.
The finding also, under new whale watch regulations adopted by Washington state in 2020, justifies extra measures to ensure Tofino and her providers have the best chance of successful feeding.
WDFW confirmed the observations by SR3 and on Thursday invoked an emergency rule requiring commercial whale-watch tours to keep at least one half a nautical mile away from the baby or her family, if she is with them.
The intention of the rule is to ensure that the baby’s survival is not impeded by vessels, which can disturb the orcas and make it more difficult for them to hunt salmon by listening for echolocation clicks. Noise and disturbance by boats make it harder for them to hear and causes the orcas to raise their voices to be heard by one another, which can sap their energy.
The southern resident orca families have likely just sustained a recent loss, K21, the oldest of the southern resident males. He was seen severely emaciated on July 29 and has not been seen since. He is presumed dead, bringing the total population of the endangered southern residents to only 74.
The department urged all boaters to stay well back from the southern residents over the holiday weekend and follow the Be Whale Wise guidelines. State law requires:
- Boats to stay 300 yards from southern resident orcas on either side.
- Boats to stay 400 yards out of southern resident orcas’ path — in front and behind the whales
- Boats to go slow (under 7 knots) within a half-mile of southern resident orcas
- Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.
Boats should stay 100 yards from all other marine mammals (such as humpback whales, gray whales, sea lions and seals).
The causes of the southern residents’ decline are at least threefold: lack of Chinook salmon, their preferred food; pollution; and noise and disturbance by boats.
As a young female, J56 is important to the endangered population’s reproductive capacity.
“Many partners are working together to address all of the threats to the whales. We know having enough prey and vessel impacts are connected and the science tells us that the whales hunt more successfully when they have enough space and quiet to find them,” said Lynne Barre, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries recovery coordinator for the southern residents.
Research that NOAA Fisheries published earlier this year indicated female orcas often give up foraging when boats approach within 400 yards. That is most concerning in pregnant or nursing mothers that must support calves.
J56’s pod is currently known to be in Washington waters and WDFW and NOAA fisheries enforcement officers will patrol to help enforce orca protection regulations, the WDFW stated in its news release.
“The news of Tofino’s worsening condition further emphasizes the harrowing truth that Southern Resident killer whales are in trouble,” said Kelly Susewind, WDFW director. “The loss of even one young individual in the Southern Resident population is too great. By following Be Whale Wise regulations, boaters can help to give Tofino a fighting chance.”