7 Orcas Go Missing From Puget Sound

Could Be Region’s Biggest Decline Since 1999

Scientists who track Puget Sound killer whales are alarmed as seven of them have gone missing and are presumed dead, in what could be the biggest drop in the area’s orca population in nearly a decade. Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, said Friday “The population drop is worse than the stock market.”

In the last century the population has reached 140 or more whales, but their numbers have fluctuated in recent decades. They were listed as endangered in 2005. While the official census won’t be completed until December, the total number of live “southern resident” orcas now stands at 83.

One of the main causes seems to be an age old problem: lack of food, as declining numbers of chinook salmon, a primary food for these whales, may be a factor in the unusual number of deaths this year. All species face this crisis, as animals and plants lower down the food chain are effected by environmental changes they start to impact the lifeforms higher up the food chain.

As these wildlife face shorter supplies of food, it starts to impact their migratory and habitat behavior. They start to span out further away from their original breeding grounds, and clash with other species in different environments from their own. Eventually, they could also start producing weaker spawn (and probably fewer amounts), as nutritional quality and quantity decreases.

Over time you would start to see the lifespan of animals like these decrease, with more fatalities increasing as they become more and more susceptible to their surrounding environments. An easy way to think of it in relation to humans: when you eat less than you normally do, you feel weak and in some cases get more sick easily. If you’re a mom, and you give your kids adequate food, they are usually able to fight off common illnesses easier…but, when they are malnourished they can succumb to the simplest forms of bacteria and viruses.

The whales were making an apparent comeback in recent years, reaching 90 in number in 2005, “but it’s been a downhill trend now for three years,” Balcomb said.

Among those missing are two female whales, both of whom recently produced calves. One of those calves, L-111, is missing, while the other, J-39, is not. It’s not unusual to lose older or younger whales, but losing two females in reproductive prime is “a bit of a concern” since they typically have a high survival rate, said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

One female whale, known to scientists as L-67, had the potential for two or three more calves, Hanson said. She was the mother of “Luna,” a juvenile killer whale from Washington waters that made headlines in 2001 when he became separated from his pod and turned up in Nootka Sound, off the west coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island. A killer whale believed to be Luna died in Nootka Sound in 2006 when it was hit by the propeller of a large tugboat.

You can read the full article here.

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~ by drcorner on November 1, 2008.

5 Responses to “7 Orcas Go Missing From Puget Sound”

  1. It is really sad but true the population has been declining! The same with our native salmon. I’m not sure why either, I wonder about pollution, and lack of food as the two main causes. I now that the salmon habitat has been reduced due to the increase in development. We have lost so much natural habitiat in the last 10 years, it’s crazy. The development cause sediment and debri and runoff to block the streams, and the fish haven’t been able to get through it to spawn, of course this in turn has caused less food in the puget sound. It’s just an ugly circle. It is down right scary to fly over Washington state and seem how much deforestation has occured. People think it’s not connected to the whales, but it’s all connected. I’ve also had a friend who is a captain on a large ship, tell me that they have found a warm current, like the one a few years ago, that has a food source, and the whales have altered their migration to follow the small fish and food that live in this current, which takes them off their normal migration track. Not sure, but it is interesting to watch and learn about. I love the whates here! They are amazing to watch. I spent a weekend up in the San Juans and they were right in front of me, it is awe inspiring to watch. Thanks for the interesting article!

  2. This is great reading for anyone interested, from a Northwest perspective. It is all very accurate and informative. Quite an environmental mystery to us in the NW. It’s very complicated issue and like every thing else that matters so much to us we could go on forever!

    http://pugetsoundblogs.com/waterways/tag/puget-sound-killer-whales/

  3. Hey Brittany, thanks for stopping by…great couple of posts you’ve added.

    Yeah, you’re absolutely right…the way things that are seemingly unrelated can be connected to each other is mind-boggling sometimes.

    Thanks for the link, it’s good to see ABC News pick it up and for it get National coverage…otherwise very few people on the East Coast would even know about it.

  4. The researchers from the University of Washington came out today with findings that did establish the fact that it is nutritional deficiency that is causing the Orca whale deaths. The only thing that will save the pods is to focus on salmon habitat and recovery of the food source. The report said that within 50 years they will be extinct unless we focus on getting our Chinook salmon runs to return. I am surprised because we have worked hard on the issue in our state, but I guess not hard enough. I can’t imagine not having them to share with our great grandchildren. They are truly amazing creatures!

    Have you ever been up close to the humpback whales in Hawaii? They too are amazing. We had them come up to our boat, and the captain lowered a microphone into the water, and we could hear their whale song, it was incredible to listen to.It gives you chills. They are so social and friendly, when we were all singing on the boat, they came right up next to us and circled around with their babies, they stayed for over an hour jumping & playing. I’ll never forget that trip.

  5. Thanks for the info…I figured it was starting on the low end and working gits way up to the big guys like the Orcas…

    I’ve never seen them in Hawaii, but whenever I can get the chance, I’d love to see them in Alaska…oh man what a sight that must be with those Glaciers in the background, and such clean, crisp air.

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