Researchers fear recent death of Puget Sound orca could have ‘severe consequences’

Sep 21, 2021, 12:50 PM | Updated: Sep 22, 2021, 6:14 am
Puget Sound orcas...
L47 (pictured above) is believed to be deceased. (Center for Whale Research)
(Center for Whale Research)

The Center for Whale Research (CWR) believes that two missing Southern Resident orcas are likely deceased, with the local population now dwindling down to 73.

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The first of the missing whales is L47, who would have been 47 years old in 2021. The CWR describes her as “among the most prolific Southern Resident females,” having birthed seven calves, the most of any local orca. Four calves of hers did not make it past their first year, while two daughters and one son still survive.

While L47 “did not appear to be in particularly poor condition” the last time she was seen by researchers, she has been missing from enough surveys for her to “likely” be deceased, with wide-ranging consequences should that prove to be accurate.

“As a mother and grandmother, L47’s death may have severe consequences,” the CWR said in a news release. “Center for Whale Research data shows that older, post-reproductive females hold key leadership roles in this society, particularly when food is scarce.”

Howard Garrett, board president and founder of the Orca Network, explained that this could make things more difficult for L47’s children and grandchildren.

“Mothers and grandmothers share food with their young, well into their adulthood and their young’s adulthood,” Garrett explained. “They are sort of the primary food provider.”

He added that orcas share strong emotional bonds with one another, staying in their matriarchal pods for life.

“When the mother or grandmother departs, it leaves a big hole in their family,” Garrett said.

The CWR estimates that L47’s death makes it three times more likely that her son, L115, could potentially die within the next two years, compared to a similarly-aged male orca with a living mother.

The risk of death is even higher for L47’s grandchildren.

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“L47’s two grand-offspring, L110 and L122, have an approximately six-fold increase in their risk of death in the next two years,” the CWR noted.

Fortunately, for the moment, L47’s children and grandchildren appear to be healthy, but Garrett said that researchers will be keeping a close eye on them because “the history just doesn’t look good for them.”

Also missing and presumed dead is K21, a 35-year-old male orca last seen “exhibiting extreme emaciation” in July.

At 73, the orca population is the lowest it has been in four decades.

This comes in the wake of news that three Puget Sound orcas in the J-Pod appear to be in the late stages of pregnancy, signaling the possibility of new calves sometime in the next several months.

While this is a good indication that the surviving orcas are doing well and will hopefully be able to boost their numbers, it also represents some dangers. Orca mothers are at their most vulnerable during pregnancy and right after giving birth. Miscarriages and the loss of young calves is common, especially as the orcas battle starvation.

Garrett said that all of this shows how precarious the orcas’ situation is. Even though the orcas have been spotted looking more robust lately after finding alternative food sources on the outer coast of Vancouver Island, there is no guarantee of recovery.

“The outlook is all very iffy. We’re hoping that the three pregnancies will come to fruition and we’ll have healthy babies over the next six months or a year. But it’s just hard to see,” Garrett said. “They’re on that balance — teetering on decline or gradual rebuilding.”

And whether the Southern Residents die off or recover will largely depend, he said, on whether people do their part to help.

Habitat recovery — especially for the Chinook salmon that the orcas rely on — will be critical, Garrett said.

There is also the impact of vessel noise, which can interfere with the orcas’ use of echolocation to find food. Right now, the law requires that boats stay at least 300 yards on either side of orcas or 400 yards in front of or behind them — though the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has said that leaving 1,000 yards of space would be ideal. Boaters also must go no faster than 7 knots around orcas.

For more information on how to protect orcas when out on the water, visit Be Whale Wise.

KIRO Radio reporter Nicole Jennings contributed to this report. 

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Researchers fear recent death of Puget Sound orca could have ‘severe consequences’