Day 6

B.C.'s critically endangered resident orcas are late and scientists say that spells trouble

Deborah Giles has been following the southern resident orcas for three decades and this is the first time they haven't come to the Salish Sea by the end of June. Giles says an endangered Chinook salmon population is to blame.

'In a nutshell, there's not enough food to bring the whales in,' says Deborah Giles

A new baby was spotted swimming with the endangered southern resident killer whale J Pod off Tofino in May. The whales are more than a month late to their summer residence in the Salish Sea. (John Forde and Jennifer Steven)
Listen8:49

Scientist Deborah Giles says it has been "nerve wracking" waiting for the southern resident orcas to show up to the Salish Sea — and that a lack of Chinook salmon is to blame for their late arrival. 

The endangered killer whales typically spend May to October feasting on the Chinook salmon in the waterways off the coast of British Columbia and Washington. This year, Giles says, they are more than a month late.

"This is definitely a record here, being toward the end of June and having no days … we've never had that before," she told Day 6 guest host Jorge Barrera. Giles has followed the whales for more than three decades and is the resident scientist at the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs. 

The 76 orcas are officially listed as a "species at risk" by the Canadian government, and the population is reported to be at a 30 year low.

Now Giles fears that the whales are not returning to their summer residence because there is not enough fish. 

"In a nutshell, there's not enough food to bring the whales in," she said. 

That, along with the effects that the recently approved Trans Mountain pipeline expansion may have on the whales, is worrying to Giles. It's estimated that tanker traffic will increase sevenfold in the Salish Sea.

Still, Giles is hopeful that the population will not die out, as long as major changes are made. 

"We are definitely going in the wrong direction right now," she said.  

To hear the full interview with Deborah Giles, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.

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