Orca birth brings Southern Resident killer whale population to 88

J47 with its mother, J35. The whale
J47 with its mother, J35. The whale's birth nudges the local orca population to 88.
— image credit: Jeff Hogan / Center for Whale Research

The Southern Resident killer whale population is now 88, with the birth of a J pod orca confirmed Jan. 3.

The calf, designated J47, was born to J35, according to the Center for Whale Research.

The center, which maintains a census of the Southern Resident killer whales for the National Marine Fisheries Service, reported that five whales were born and three were missing in 2009, nudging the year-end population to 87.

"No sooner had the census report been made to the government than another new baby killer whale appeared in J pod, this one to a twelve-year-old female on 3 January 2010," the center reported on its Web site.

"For the time being, that means the SRKW population is back up to 88! We are optimistic that this 'baby boom' in J pod represents a comeback for the resident population" which went into a steep decline in the mid-1990s.

J47 is J35's first calf, according to Dr. Kenneth C. Balcomb of the center. "Her sister had a calf in November and her mother had a calf in spring. This matriline is blossoming." He added, "They're investing in the future. We should too."

J35 is one of about 35 reproductive-age females in the Southern Resident pods, Balcomb said.

The three pods — called "residents" because they spend a majority of the year here — are considered endangered by the U.S. and Canada. Their population, believed to have been historically in the high 100s, was decimated by captures for marine parks, which ended in the 1970s, followed by pollution and declining salmon populations.

The whales' population plummeted to 71 by 1973, climbed to 99 in 1995, then plummeted to 79 six years later. The population rebounded to 80 in 2002, 83 in 2003, 85 in 2004 and 89 in 2005, and has seesawed around 88 since then. The whales were declared endangered by the U.S. and Canada by 2005.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is writing a recovery plan for the whales. The most controversial proposed element of the recovery plan is banning boats from the west side of San Juan Island from May 1 to Sept. 30.

That no-go zone is opposed by local officials, as well as kayakers and kayak tour operators. They say that kayaks are no-impact vessels, and that a no-go zone would have a dramatic economic impact on the local economy.

In a column published in The Journal and on, Dr. Val Veirs and Jenny Atkinson of The Whale Museum proposed a go-slow zone for all vessels, with special consideration given for human-powered craft such as kayaks.

The federal government is accepting public comments until Jan. 15 (comments may be submitted by e_mail to

Balcomb believes the key to orca recovery is food.

"I told the government that for 20 years the population is going to go up and down like this," Balcomb said. "The long-term solution to an upswing here is fish. We need to get the chinook restored. The way it's going, if there's not enough fish, you can have a baby but it's not going to survive."

The center's Web site states, "The whales are traveling as far as California and Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) searching for these nutritious fish, but they keep coming back to the Salish Sea. If the whales could talk to us, they would probably say that our effort to promote wild salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest is good for all of us, so let's do all that we can. And, let's clean up the pollution, too, so we can all eat healthy fish."

The Center for Whale Research and others also blame marine pollution and acoustic impacts from dredging, seismic testing and military sonar for the decline in the population. To hear what sonar sounds like underwater, CLICK HERE.

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