J-17 on the last day of 2018.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit (Center for Whale Research)

Remember that orca mom that carried around her dead calf for more than two weeks in the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea? Tahlequah, also known as J-35, had a rough year, and 2019 isn’t shaping out to be much better for her. Now, her 42-year-old mother, J-17, appears malnourished and isn’t expected to make it to through the summer, reports the Seattle Times.

J-17 isn’t the only southern resident orca whose health is quickly deteriorating either; so is K-25, a 25-year-old male from another pod. The entire southern resident killer whale population, which is made up of three pods, is threatened by extinction. The endangered species has only 74 members left since the loss of a young female last year. At this point, every death hurts species recovery, said Misty MacDuffee, the wild salmon program director for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

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“With every loss, we lose reproductive capacity,” she told Earther.

After all, this population hasn’t seen a successful pregnancy in three years. While scientists had documented pregnancies in some whales last year, they haven’t seen any newborns. The species must grow if it’s going to survive.

Growth, however, requires food. Starvation and malnutrition are what’s killing J-17 and K-25. Unfortunately, these whales are a picky bunch and almost exclusively eat chinook salmon, one of the larger salmon species that’s also endangered and threatened. The only way to save the orca is to recover their food source. And that’s easier said than done.

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MacDuffee and her organization are focused on commercial and recreational fishing in Pacific waters, which they say is key to saving the salmon and, in turn, the orca. However, while the state is aware overfishing is a concern, the Southern Resident Orca Task Force organized by Governor Jay Inslee last year has identified three other factors as primary drivers of the orca decline: A lack of salmon driven by development and habitat loss, noise from vessel traffic, and toxic contaminants.

Noise makes it more difficult for the whales to find food. The toxins, meanwhile, are setting up baby whales, who depend on their mother’s toxic milk, to fail. A study last year showed that polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have infiltrated the bodies of these marine mammals despite bans in the 1970s and 1980s. They’re still in our environment, especially our waterways. All this is harming our orcas.

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“We are witnessing an extinction event,” said Robb Krehbiel, a working group member of the task force and is the northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, to Earther.

Solving all these issues will take time and money. Governor Inslee has requested more than $1 billion in investments toward orca recovery, including boosting the enforcement of environmental laws that already exist, increasing salmon hatchery production, and consulting stakeholders over the removal of dams that impact salmon migration. Salmon in the Columbia and Snake river systems must traverse some 14 dams to migrate; these hydropower developments are harming them and ultimately the orcas.

“We think [the dams] should go, and we’re going to be working with federal agencies to really advocate for the removal of those dams as a necessary step to save orcas
,” Krehbiel told Earther.

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Inslee has not come out in full support of removing the dams, but he is open to discussing it.

However, none of this can do much for the two orcas who are suffering now. Officials with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration tried to save J-50, the young orca that died last year, by feeding her medicated fish, and she still died.

“The fact is we can’t save these whales on a case-by-case basis,” Krehbiel said. “What we really need to do is invest in the long-term recovery of the population by recovering the salmon they rely on
.”

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One endangered species relies on another endangered species—and it’s all our fault. People are the only ones who can save the southern resident killer whale population.