Orca Newborn Seen In Puget Sound: A Rare Sight
A rare spotting of a baby orca was reported near President Point in Puget Sound this week by Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, confirming the birth of a new calf to the J Pod- one of the 3 Southern Resident Orca pods living off the U.S. Pacific coastline.
Critically endangered, the Center for Whale Research estimates the newborn to be just a few days old, as it hasn’t been seen in other recent encounters.
Spotted close to an adult female- Suttles (also known as J40), researchers Maya and Mark Sears believe this to be the baby’s mother, and are actively seeking to confirm this in future meet-ups with the group. So far this summer, two new additions to the L12 subgroup of the L pod- resident in the Strait of Georgia off the shores of Canada, have been spotted.
Hanson welcomes the good news, as the last baby boom- in 2015, was disappointing for researchers. Concerned for the survival of the calves in the first few years of their lives, he expresses trepidation because first-time mothers have yet to figure out how to be a parent. Historically, calf survival rates are low, raising further concerns about this endangered species. To grow the population, five or six need to grow successfully, but according to Hanson, “That’s just not been happening in the population.”
The numbers of orcas in the three families or pods- J, K, and L, have been declining. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates there to be 75 orcas- a small increase from the 73 whales counted in the 2022 census conducted by the Center for Whale Research which was one of the lowest numbers in population counts since 1974’s count of 71 orcas. Peaking in 1995 at 98, by the end of the century the numbers had declined by close to 20%, and in 2001 80 orca whales were recorded.
Because baby orcas often don’t survive long enough to reproduce, the Southern Resident groups are battling to survive. Faced with three threats to their continued existence- a lack of Chinook salmon which makes up most of their diet, chemical pollution in their environment, and underwater noise that leads to interference in their communication with each other that in turn makes hunting more difficult, research shows that two-thirds of Southern Resident Orca pregnancies are lost due to lack of food. These whales could be plummeting toward extinction as they have less hunting success than their northerly cousins, leading to an increasingly inbred population.
Threats and Solutions For Southern Resident Orcas
Marine parks took or killed over 50 individuals from the Southern Resident Orca population- approximately 40% of the population, over two decades. Designated as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2005, the Southern Resident Orcas remain one of the most critically endangered marine mammals in the US. The threats to their survival are:
- Lack of Food: With Chinook salmon making up more than 80% of their diet, the orca population decline is mainly because of the decline in Chinook salmon abundance. Western rivers, including the Columbia Snake River watershed- a key source of Chinook, have been broken by a series of dams that choke the water system which used to flow freely. Killing millions of Chinook juveniles attempting to migrate downriver to the ocean, four lower Snake River dams have reduced the population of Chinook salmon, which has declined four-fold since they were built. Losing two-thirds of their genetic diversity since ancient times, scientists predict that Columbia River chinook salmon will only continue to decline if the current state of affairs persists, leaving the Southern Resident Orca pods with substantially fewer hunting opportunities.
- Chemical pollution: Anthropogenic chemical pollutants like PCBs found in the waters bioaccumulate in the orca’s tissues causing endocrine and immune system disruption, particularly severe when orcas are starving.
- Noise pollution: As Southern Resident Orcas use echolocation to catch prey, noisy vessels interrupt communication throughout the three distinct pods with each having their own unique dialect.
$16 billion of taxpayer and ratepayer money has been spent but not a single endangered salmon group has recovered. Breaching the lower four Snake River dams may be the biggest action we can take to recover the endangered Southern Resident orca population. Supported by the findings of the 1999 Marine Fisheries Service’s investigation, the Fish Passage Center has found that dam breaching by itself would increase spring/summer chinook salmon returns by four-fold. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Association’s 2016 and 2017 final Recovery Plan for Spring/Summer Chinook also indicates that without dam breaching, lower Snake River salmon runs will not recover.
Currently, there are less than 30 effective Southern Resident Orca breeding population members. Of the 6 babies born from December 2014 through 2016, half have died, and not a single baby orca calf born in 2017 has survived to adulthood. J14 and J28- 2 orca mothers, as well as J2- a great-grandmother, have also died. Predicting that this population will go extinct, scientists urge us to take immediate action. Breaching the Snake River dams will safeguard the wild Chinook salmon, protect jobs, respect treaties and promises with tribal communities, and preserve the Southern Resident Orcas. In turn, it would increase Oregon’s recreation and tourism economy, and sustain the Northwest way of life.