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How Helping Salmon Could Save Puget Sound’s Baby Orcas

February 17, 2016
With nine new calves in the last year, the most important question may be whether they will have enough to eat.

When the new baby orca L120 was spotted in just off of San Juan Island in Puget Sound, Ken Balcomb passed out cigars to celebrate.

But the long-time killer whale researcher knew that the southern resident orca pods needed a lot more than one new member. That was back in September, 2014. Their numbers were down to 78, the smallest since 1985. L120 was the first baby orca born in two years.

“It’s a minor celebration,” Balcomb said at the time. “What we need is eight or nine of these celebrations any given year. We want to have more reproductive females in this population in the next decade or two. We have to replace the breeding population.”

The celebration was short-lived. Little L120 disappeared a month later and was presumed dead. The mortality rate of orca calves is close to 50 percent in the first year alone.

Ken Balcomb, executive director of Center for Whale Research, on the deck facing Haro Strait  (Sept 2014).  Aileen Imperial, KCTS9.Flash forward to today. Balcomb has gotten his wish. There have been 10 births in the last year. Nine calves are surviving, swimming alongside their mothers and aunts. For the southern residents, it’s the biggest baby boom since the 1970s.

Could this mark a turnaround in the health of the orca population? Does it mean conservation efforts are finally paying off?

“What it means,” Balcomb said, “is there are nine more mouths to feed and no more fish.” He says it will be a miracle if all these babies survive until the summer of 2017.

Two Puget Sound orcas, J53 and J17. Dave Ellefrit, courtesy Center for Whale Research.

The southern resident killer whales were put on the endangered species list in 2005. Their decline has been attributed to vessel traffic, noise and chemical contamination, which makes them more susceptible to disease and leads to difficulties with reproduction. But perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that they feed primarily on chinook salmon, which is also an endangered species. Puget Sound orcas are subsisting on a dwindling number of these fish.

In some parts of the Northwest salmon numbers are on the rise. Deborah Giles, research director at the Center for Whale Research, believes that when last year’s baby orcas were conceived back in 2013 members of their pods were spending time near the mouth of the Columbia River where returning chinook salmon numbers had increased substantially over three years.

With pods foraging together, mating opportunities increase. One worrisome trend that center officials have observed is pod fragmentation — that’s when groups of orcas separate and travel farther distances to search for prey. This can reduce their opportunities to mate.

Two of Puget Sound's orcas, L91 and L122.  Dave Ellefrit, courtesy Center for Whale Research.

But according to the center’s research, it’s not for lack of trying that the whales haven’t been having babies.

“There’s no Planned Parenthood program here. They like to have sex and babies happen,” Balcomb said.

Even J2, the 103-year-old super-matriarch called Granny, has been observed exhibiting mating behavior with male whales following her around. Granny’s not getting pregnant (menopause occurs at age 40), but other female whales should be, Giles says.

Among southern residents, there are 29 females between the ages 11 and 42, the known age range for killer whales to give birth. “They can have a baby every three years, so we ought to have now nine babies every year,” Giles said.

Giles and Balcomb say there may have been “baby booms” every year, but the calves died in utero or shortly after birth before any whale watchers spotted them.

Another problem could be insufficient nutrition to bring a fetus to term or to nurse it once it’s born. Orcas are among the most contaminated mammals on earth, storing legacy polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxins in their blubber. A malnourished mother will draw on residual fat to produce milk and in turn will pass a dangerous toxic load to her calf.

Deborah Giles, research director, Center for Whale Research and researcher Dave Ellefrit photographing calf J53 .  Courtesy of Jeannie Hyde.

So malnourishment caused by prey scarcity has a double whammy effect on reproduction and raising a healthy calf.

“We have to start feeding these whales,” Balcomb says. “Remember, nine new babies will be a consumptive burden on the population for at least 10 years.”

According to Balcomb, the first step is to help the salmon.

“All of the fisheries’ management to date has been for human resource,” he says. “We have to start thinking of the ecological solution here.”

Balcomb says there’s an obvious solution that could make a big impact on restoring prime spawning habitat.

“The biggest single thing we could do is to remove the three Snake River dams,” Balcomb says. That’s because the Snake River at one time contributed up to 45 percent of the Columbia River chinook runs, according to the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority. Removing the dams would allow returning chinook to reach prime spawning beds hundreds of miles upstream.

The agency responsible for figuring out how to help the southern resident orcas recover is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

Lynne Barre of the agency’s protected resources division, which implements the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, says NOAA’s recovery program focuses on all the threats to these killer whales, not just availability of salmon, because it’s unclear which threat is having the biggest impact.

“Availability of chinook is important and a high priority for us,” Barre says. “But this threat is linked to how contaminants may be influencing the health and reproduction of the whales and is also connected to effects from vessels and sound that impact foraging.”

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

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