For more than 100 days, J-pod has been missing from the waters of the Salish Sea, according to numerous regional orca researchers. This is the first time since scientists began tracking the keystone species that they’ve been missing for so long.
For generations, the Southern residents spent so much time in the Salish Sea it garnered them their name — residents — though they, too, come and go like the less aptly coined transients. In fact, previously the beloved cetaceans would be spotted in the emerald waters surrounding the San Juans on a near-daily basis by whale watchers.
K and L pods are also making themselves scarce — with K pod briefly visiting the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on July 1 before returning to the open sea, and L pod last seen in February.
J pod is home to some of the area’s most well-known orcas including Granny, who was thought by some to have been more than 100 years old when she was reported missing and feared dead. And mourning mother Tahlequah, the orca who gently carried her deceased calf around for approximately 1,000 miles over the course of 17 days.
“As much as we miss seeing the Southern Residents, we all hope that they are finding plentiful food off the coast, enough for the population to grow and thrive,” The Orca Network’s Cindy Hansen told King 5. “They used to spend their summers here, having greeting ceremonies, and socializing with one another. The lack of salmon may be impacting more than their health and ability to reproduce. It may also be depriving them of an important part of who they are as a society.”
The Center for Whale Research’s Dr. Michael Weiss told King 5, “It represents a huge change to their behavior, a huge disruption of their traditional patterns of movement, which really does, I think, serve as an alarm bell that we’re not just potentially looking at the very slow extinction of this unique population. But we’re seeing a loss of that cultural tradition that this population has had for many generations.”
In March, NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center released a study reaffirming the importance of Chinook salmon to the orca population. Researchers point to a diminished number of salmon runs from the Fraser River as one of the main reasons the endangered Southern residents haven’t frequented the Salish Sea.
Canada’s Fraser River is the longest in British Columbia, originating in Fraser Pass in the Rocky Mountains and flowing for 1,375 kilometers before dumping into the Salish Sea just south of Vancouver. The return of salmon to spawn in the river was abysmally low, according to reports. This year is not expected to be much better, in fact, some fear it may be worse.
Without the Southern residents’ meal of choice readily available in the Salish Sea, it’s truly unsurprising that they choose to stick to the open waters, where their preferred diet is more abundant.
It’s difficult to see a healthy future for the struggling species, which has only 74 members remaining among its three pods. Even the Environmental Protection Agency fears for the rebound of Southern residents, saying, “Since 2006, the population has generally declined and has not shown signs of recovery, with only 74 individuals as of December 2020. This trend, along with biological condition of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population, acoustic stressors, vessel impacts, the consistently low availability of Chinook salmon, and exposure to contaminants, indicate that this population is facing increasing threats to its survival and recovery.”
The Salish Sea is surrounded by cities, dumping gallons of contaminated stormwater runoff into the ocean. It is also home to two of the West Coast’s largest ports.
The Port of Seattle-Tacoma is the third-largest in the United States in terms of cargo handling and the Port of Vancouver is Canada’s largest and is expected to grow at an annual rate of 3.5 percent. Because of this, hundreds of shipping containers and oil tankers pass through the waters surrounding the islands annually.
These large ships and tankers cause quite the disturbance to foraging Southern residents, who use echolocation to find food and communicate with one another. Speed has been found to be a contributing factor, resulting in various rules regarding the maximum knot speed allowed in certain areas.
As residents of the San Juan Islands, we’re all intimately aware of the Southern residents’ ongoing struggles. The San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau has a list of ways to help protect the orcas, suggesting the following:
• Use your voice to reach out to elected officials and ask them to oppose harmful changes to the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection act, both of which provide crucial protections to the orcas.
• Reduce the number of contaminants entering the Salish Sea by switching to natural cleaning and beauty products as well as avoiding microplastics and harmful chemicals. Additionally, you can use self-serve of tunnel carwashes instead of your own driveway, reducing the amount of soap entering storm drains.
• Don’t eat Chinook salmon — the Southern residents’ favorite and primary source of nutrition. Opt for chum or pink salmon which are more abundant. And avoid farmed fish!
• Reduce your plastic use. The San Juan County Council proclaimed July as Plastic Free July, joining people around the globe in reducing the amount of single-use plastics we use. You can opt for reusable grocery bags, food storage bags and mesh produce bags, as well as reusable water bottles and eco-friendly alternatives to plastic straws and utensils.
• Join the Great Islands Clean-up in cleaning the beaches and streets of our island home!
• Be Whale Wise when out on the water — give all Salish Sea creatures their space when boating and slow your vessel down!
• Support local organizations like The Whale Museum, Center for Whale Research, the Orca Network and Friends of the San Juans.