VANCOUVER—When a family of southern resident orcas are spotted returning to their annual summer home in the Salish Sea, alerts pop up on the cellphones of whale researchers across the Pacific Northwest.
That’s when a small army of scientists head out onto the water to study the critically endangered population.
Deborah Giles has been checking her phone for the past month, waiting for the call. It hasn’t come.
The 76 critically endangered whales are a month late. Scientists say their absence is a stark reminder that the southern resident orcas are a population on the brink, slowly starving to death because there is not enough Chinook salmon to sustain them.
“I am really sad, really dismayed,” said Giles, who works with the University of Washington.
The three pods of the southern resident killer whales, Jpod, Kpod and Lpod, traditionally spend nearly a third of the year in the Salish Sea, earning them the name “resident” killer whales. Resident orcas follow the seasonal patterns of the salmon runs. In the summer, they rely heavily on the Fraser River Chinook and historically, they have feasted in the Salish Sea from May until October.
But the salmon runs are in decline due to climate change, toxins and habitat degradation. And starting in 2013, the whales have been spending drastically less time in the Salish Sea.
The Center for Whale Research, the Washington-based organization in charge of conducting the annual census of the southern resident killer whale population for both Canadian and U.S. governments, confirmed the whales have not returned.
“I don’t think anybody here recalls any June without whales. It’s really unprecedented,” said Michael Weiss, a biologist with the centre.
He doesn’t know exactly why the whales are so late this year. It’s just the latest bit of bad news for the population.
Several whales died last year, including youngster J50, who was the subject of a cross-border rescue attempt in her dying days. At least one whale will likely die this summer, according to Weiss and Giles. Another death would be a big blow to the population.
Longtime matriarch J17, mother of the internationally famous whale J35, who carried her dead newborn’s body for weeks last summer, is close to death, Weiss said.
Aerial photographs from last fall show she has the dreaded “peanut-head syndrome,” where the outline of a whale’s skull signals extreme malnutrition.
Two calves have been born alive since last summer. But lately, calves have not been surviving for very long. The last calf that survived more than a few years was born in 2015. Nearly seven in 10 pregnancies in this population end in miscarriage because the whales can’t find enough food, said Giles, whose research involves analyzing nutrition and stress hormones in whale feces.
Giles is confident the whales will eventually arrive in their summer home in the coming weeks.
“I don’t think they have abandoned this place forever,” she said. “This is part of their cultural history. This is part of the fabric of their lives.”
When the whales show up, Weiss and his team will pay special attention to the health of two calves — one in Jpod that was born in late May, and another in L pod that was first spotted last winter.
They will also look for J17 — the 42-year-old matriarch is likely past her calf-bearing days, but matriarchs like her play a vital role in resident-killer-whale society, said Weiss. Elders in orca society pass down knowledge to their families and this behaviour is especially pronounced in populations like the southern residents, where male orcas stay with their mothers for life. Twenty-eight-year old K25 was last seen in poor body condition, which is not surprising because his mother died in 2017, said Weiss.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and their American counterparts in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are studying how vessel noise affects resident whales’ foraging behaviour this summer. Resident orcas use echolocation to detect and hunt for fish.
“We are trying to manage the population without getting drawn into managing it on an individual animal basis,” said Sheila Thornton, who heads DFO’s southern resident killer whale program.
“We’re hoping that we don’t have a similar incident to last year,” she said, referring to the unsuccessful rescue attempt of ailing youngster J50. “But we are very aware that the condition of animals in the population is declining for some.”
Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, told Star Vancouver in December 2018 that federal authorities are willing to deploy resources to try to save an orca in British Columbia’s waters — like it did for J50 last summer — if the situation called for it.
But even relatively healthy whales are facing a host of increasing threats in the Salish Sea, including vessel noise, toxins in the water and shrinking availability of prey.
In May, DFO introduced rules around vessel speed and distance in the presence of orcas. The government also reduced fishing quotas for Chinook.
One biologist at Raincoast Conservation Foundation told Star Vancouver it is not clear how effective the rules will be in saving the whales, when tanker traffic in the orcas’ critical habitat is projected to increase sevenfold due to the recently approved Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
That’s exactly what DFO’s scientists are trying to find out.
“The need to undertake management action is occurring at such a rapid rate, we are feeling like we’re playing catch up in that we’re trying to bring the best available science as quickly as possible,” said Thornton.
Thornton and her 16-person team operate five field sites around Vancouver Island.
Microphones around Vancouver Island, operated by American research groups as far south as Puget Sound, allow scientists around the world to track the whales, who speak a dialect unique to their population. Researchers are able to identify the whales by their vocalizations.
Giles sometimes gets alerts in the middle of the night when scientists halfway around the world, dialed into those hydrophones, hear the Salish Sea orcas swim past.
“It’s a worldwide army of people that are so in tune with what’s happening with these whales and so involved and so concerned about their welfare,” she said. “I can’t think of any other population of animals that has this many fans.”
Wanyee Li is a Vancouver-based reporter covering courts and conservation issues. Follow her on Twitter: @wanyeelii