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Southern Resident Killer Whales are Dying of Starvation

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The last known photo of J-28, with J-54 by her side | Photo: Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale Research.

The West Coast’s most celebrated marine mammal is in big trouble, and its supporters are pleading for the removal of four big dams that are killing off the species’ food supply.

At a somber ceremony in Seattle on Friday, cetacean biologists announced that two more members of the Southern Resident killer whale population’s “J pod” had died of apparent starvation in October, bringing the total population of Southern Resident orcas to 80.

The reason: Southern Resident killer whales eat Chinook salmon. And since we've built dams on the majority of their spawning habitat, there aren’t enough Chinook salmon to go around.

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At the Seattle event, held Friday at Pier 66 on that city's waterfront,, whale advocates noted the recent losses of J-28, a breeding-age female orca born in 1993, and her calf J-54, until his death the youngest member of the J pod, born in 2015. Both whales were observed in weak, even emaciated condition in the weeks and days before their deaths. They were preceded in death by J-14, a 42-year-old female who went missing in August, and the young male J-55, who died in January only a handful of days old.

That leaves the J pod with just 26 members, some of whom are also showing signs of malnourishment. The other two groups of Southern Resident orcas, the K and L pods, aren’t faring any better, with 19 and 35 members respectively as of a count in September. All three pods are closely related matrilineal family groups, each with a distinct dialect and range. 

Southern Resident orcas, unlike their relatives the offshore and transient orcas, subsist primarily on Chinook salmon. Of the 500 pounds of fish a healthy orca can eat each day, about 350 pounds is typically provided by Chinooks. Although a shortage of salmon hits all orcas hard, it seems to be mothers and calves that are at the most risk of dying by starvation: calves need a lot of fish each day so that they can grow into adults weighing between three to six metric tons, while mothers expend a lot of calories in lactating, which can last as long as two years.

The K and L pods, which travel southward along the coast to Northern California in winter, meaning that salmon-killing dams on rivers such as the Klamath and the Sacramento cut into their food supply. But the J pod tends to stay in or near the Salish Sea, the large protected body of water that includes the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Georgian Strait, and Puget Sound. Many of the salmon in that area spawn in the Columbia River watershed. That means that J pod orcas’ food supply is especially threatened by four dams on the lower Snake River — the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams — owned and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Removing those four dams is already being discussed. In May, a judge threw out a plan by the federal government for restoring salmon populations in the Columbia and Snake, saying it didn’t provide adequate protections for the fish. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon in Portland, Oregon ordered the feds to draft a new salmon protection plan by 2018, and said that in order to protect the salmon, the new plan “may well require consideration of the reasonable alternative of breaching, bypassing, or removing one or more of the four Lower Snake River Dams.”

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A starved and exhausted J-54 (center) is held up so that he can breathe by his sister J-46, at right, and his cousin, J-47. He likely drowned within hours of this photo being taken. | Photo: Mark Malleson

The dams provide five percent or less of the Pacific Northwest’s electrical power supply, and salmon advocates have calculated that that amount could feasibly be replaced with other renewable sources.

There’s local precedent: after a lengthy campaign by Native people and their allies to remove two obsolete dams on the Olympic Peninsula’s Elwha River, those dams came out in 2011 and 2014. After a bit of fine-tuning of the remaining rubble, Chinook salmon re-entered the upper Elwha this year for the first time in more than a century, regaining access to 70 miles of spawning habitat.

Farther south, a tribal campaign has won an agreement to remove another four dams on the Klamath River, a potential boon to the future food supplies of the K and L pods.

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J-54's dorsal fin, bearing tooth scars as evidence of his sister's desperate attempts to keep him afloat | Photo: Mark Malleson

That help is likely years away. In the meantime, starvation increases the damage from another persistent problem affecting Southern Resident orcas: pollution. As top-level predators, orcas are vulnerable to bioaccumulating persistent toxic chemicals. PCBs are a particular problem: the industrial chemicals collect in the orcas’ fatty tissue, and are released into the bloodstream when that fat is depleted during months of hunger.

But there’s one historic harm to the whales that may have a thin silver lining. Southern Resident orcas were listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2005, in large part due to a decade of captures — and attempted captures — by the entertainment industry. Between 1965 and 1976, SeaWorld captured Southern Resident orcas for its captive whale shows, reducing the Puget Sound orca population by an estimated 40 percent in that time. Some of that depletion was due to simply removing 45 Southern Residents from the wild; some was due to at least 13 orca deaths during captures, including the death of the mother of the famous “Shamu,” killed by a harpoon during Shamu’s capture in 1965.

Whale activists have suggested for years that SeaWorld, whose public reputation was damaged by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, could salvage some of its cred by lending monetary and political efforts to boost wild orca populations. On Friday in Seattle, former SeaWorld trainer Jeffrey Ventre said he thought his old employers should advocate for removal of the dams on the lower Snake River. “I want SeaWorld to come back and help fix this because they can," said Ventre.

In the meantime, activists are suggesting that orca fans urge the White House to expedite removal of the Snake River dams. Should scientists find that’s the best way to save Southern Resident orcas in the long run, time is of the essence.  

Banner image: Members of K pod in the San Juan Islands in 2011. Photo: Ingrid Taylar, some rights reserved

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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