British Columbia

2 more killer whales will likely die by summer, experts say

Two more West Coast orcas are ailing and probably will be dead by summer, according to an expert on the critically endangered southern resident population of killer whales that live in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

Southern resident population is at a 30-year low after 3 deaths in 2018

J17, the eldest female member of J pod swims alongside a younger resident on Dec. 31, 2018. The matriarch's health has been failing for years and she is currently missing from the pod. (Center for Whale Research)

Two more West Coast orcas are ailing and probably will be dead by summer, according to an expert on the critically endangered southern resident population of killer whales that live in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

Drone photography taken this past September showed the ailing population of orcas known as the southern residents went into the winter thinner than they were when the whales arrived in the San Juan Islands last summer.

They also are thinner than the northern resident population of killer whales, which have been steadily growing in population for the past 40 years in their home waters primarily in northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska, where they have access to more fish and cleaner and quieter water.

The northern residents gave birth to 10 new calves last year.

The Seattle Times reports Center for Whale Research founding director Ken Balcomb said photos taken of a southern resident orca known as J17 on New Year's Eve showed the 42-year-old female has so-called peanut head — a misshapen head and neck caused by starvation.

In addition, a 27-year-old male known as K25 is failing, also from lack of sufficient food. He lost his mother, K13, in 2017 and is not successfully foraging on his own.

Lance Barrett-Lennard, director of the marine mammal research program at the Vancouver Aquarium, said there's little hope for the whales' survival.

"I think these two whales are in such poor condition that they're quite unlikely to make it through the winter and, sadly, if they do make it through the winter, I think the prospects are poor for them to make it through the spring and summer," he told CBC.

No successful pregnancies in 3 years

Several southern resident whales were documented to be pregnant in September, but so far there has been no sign of babies. The southern residents have not had a successful pregnancy in three years.

The southern resident population is at a 35-year low after three deaths in 2018. There are only 74 left.

Losing J17 would be a blow to the southern residents because she is a female still of reproducing age, said Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology.

K25 has been tracked using aerial photographs since 2008. This photo was taken in the fall, when scientists said the whale looks significantly thinner than in previous years. (NOAA)

Giles said she was not surprised to hear about K25. The social dynamics of the southern residents, in which older females help their pod, and especially their sons by sharing food, is both a blessing and a curse if that female dies, Giles said.

"These large, adult, hungry males benefit by the females in their family," Giles said. "There probably is still family foraging going on, but not like he had when his mom was alive."

The coming year is not looking any easier for the southern residents in terms of their food supply. The whales mostly eat chinook salmon.

Ocean conditions and poor river migration, with warm water and low flows, have hurt chinook salmon returns in the past several years.

"The biggest challenge these animals are facing is simply getting enough to eat," Barrett-Lennard said. 

"The challenge in the longer term, of course, is to rebuild chinook salmon populations, and, unfortunately, that's just a really long, slow process."

New critical habitat in B.C.

Last month, two new areas off Vancouver Island were designated as protected critical habitat for resident killer whales by the Canadian government.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said at the time the decision means key foraging locations for the endangered whales are protected from destruction. The government is increasing the amount of protected habitat from about 6,400 square kilometres to roughly 10,700 square kilometres.

The new protected area is intended to help recovery efforts for northern and southern resident killer whales, and covers an area off southwestern Vancouver Island.

The state of Washington also recently announced $1.1 billion US in spending and a partial whale-watching ban in an attempt to help the population's recovery. The money would go toward protecting and restoring habitat for salmon, boosting production from salmon hatcheries, storm-water cleanup and quieting vessel traffic.

Despite all the signs of populations' decline, Barrett-Lennard still has hope for the endangered whales.

"I don't think that they're doomed yet," he said. "I think if we can just stabilize the population, it does have some reasonable chance of recovering. We just have to get on with it, and I think the next couple of years will be very critical."

With files from Bethany Lindsay and The Canadian Press