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Orca calf born in K pod; Southern resident population may be 90

The Center for Whale Research has confirmed the birth of a new K pod calf. If it survives that critical first year, the Southern resident orca population is 90, its highest since 2006. The Center for Whale Research designated the calf K43. - Erin Heydenreich / Center for Whale Research
The Center for Whale Research has confirmed the birth of a new K pod calf. If it survives that critical first year, the Southern resident orca population is 90, its highest since 2006. The Center for Whale Research designated the calf K43.
— image credit: Erin Heydenreich / Center for Whale Research

The Center for Whale Research has confirmed the birth of a new K pod calf. If it survives that critical first year, the Southern resident orca population is 90, its highest since 2006. The Center for Whale Research designated the calf K43. Center researcher Erin Heydenreich said the calf is the fifth born to K12. However, only three of those orcas are still alive, Heydenreich said.

Heydenreich photographed the calf Wednesday in Haro Strait off Stuart Island. It's the first Southern resident calf recorded since L114 was photographed swimming with its mother, L77, Feb. 21 in Cordova Bay.

The three Southern resident pods — called "residents" because they spend a majority of the year here — are considered endangered by the United States 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 was 71 by 1973, climbed to 99 by 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.

Heydenreich said the population actually reached 90 in 2006, but then six whales failed to return with their pods later that year and were presumed dead.

As of Thursday, the population breaks down this way: J pod, 28; K pod, 20; L pod, 42. But researchers are holding their breath on those numbers; the L pod orca born over the winter has not been seen yet. "We don't think it's still around, but a whole bunch of L's are not back yet," she said.

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 SanJuanJournal.com, 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 accepted public comments until Jan. 15.

Dr. Kenneth C. Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research 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 in an earlier interview. "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.

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