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.

“I predicted we would be in this fix,” Balcomb said. “Until we solve this food issue, we will keep going through this trauma, getting all excited when there is a baby and all upset when there is a death. We have to take care of the food problem.” The southern residents need more salmon, especially chinook.

Due to the scarcity of suitable chinook-salmon prey, the southern residents 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. The whales have been on the outer coast nearly all summer.

It has been more than a month since J and K pod have been seen in their summer waters, and L pod has not been in the inland waters of the Salish Sea.

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.

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Her death puts her family at risk because older female whales help feed their families. Sons in particular are up to 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 toxics 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.

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“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 depend 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 (NOAA) for more than a decade. 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.”

For many, the news confirmed what they had feared for many weeks. “I’m numb,” 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.

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.”

Hostile Waters: Orcas in Peril


ABOUT THIS SERIES
“Hostile Waters” exposes the plight of Puget Sound's southern resident killer whales, among our region's most enduring symbols and most endangered animals. The Seattle Times examines the role humans have played in their decline, what can be done about it and why it matters.