Southern Resident orcas hit Puget Sound absence record in 2021

Jan 11, 2022, 1:44 PM | Updated: Jan 12, 2022, 6:06 am
Orca pod swims in front of Colman Pool. (Credit: Seattle Parks and Recreation via Flickr)...
Orca pod swims in front of Colman Pool. (Credit: Seattle Parks and Recreation via Flickr)
(Credit: Seattle Parks and Recreation via Flickr)

This past year was a bit of a roller coaster for the Southern Resident orcas.

With just 102 days spent in the Puget Sound in 2021, the orcas were in Washington waters fewer days than any other year on record.

“2021 was a record-breaking year as far as Southern Resident killer whale absence from the Salish Sea,” said Erin Gless, director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

This means it has been hard for researchers to determine how the Southern Resident orcas are doing, because they are simply not being observed.

Boaters asked to give space, slow down to help pregnant orcas in J-pod

The hope is that the orcas have been off the coast of Vancouver Island where they may have been able to find more Chinook salmon, their main food source.

However, while they do appear a little more robust than other years, their numbers are still at the lowest they’ve been in decades — the result of years of starvation as they struggle to get enough Chinook in the Puget Sound.

At last observation, three orcas were in late-stage pregnancy — the final six months of an 18-month gestation period. But while it gives researchers hope that three are pregnant, there is no guarantee of a healthy calf.

“What many folks don’t realize is that each year, we identify animals that are pregnant, and each year, sadly, they lose pregnancies,” Gless said. “And so, just because they get pregnant doesn’t mean that they actually carry that calf to term.”

Unfortunately, because of starvation, miscarriages are common. The rate of miscarriage can be as high as one in two, Gless said. And after birth, orca babies have a hard time surviving the first two years of life, as seen when Talequah lost her newborn calf and carried it with her for weeks in 2018.

No calves have been born seen since the three orcas were determined to be pregnant in September. Still, the fact that they were healthy enough to become pregnant is a good sign of health.

“Just because they’re pregnant doesn’t mean they’re having a calf successfully, but it means they’re pregnant. That’s the first step,” Gless said. “And so you have to celebrate every little victory.”

Taking action for Southern Resident orcas in the Legislature

Salmon recovery — and by extension, orca recovery — is expected to be a major theme in the new session of the Legislature, which began this week.

“This session is going to be really heavily focused on salmon — salmon, salmon, salmon,” Gless said. “And we’re very happy that that is getting the attention that it deserves.”

Governor Inslee proposed more than $180 million for salmon recovery in his budget, in the hopes of building back up the orcas’ food supply. This is showing up in several bills already, including those aimed at salmon habitat recovery or commercial fishing regulation.

“It is our firm belief that that is the number one thing that is affecting Southern Resident killer whale health right now, is a lack of salmon,” Gless said.

Gless said we may also see legislation this year to regulate noise from large vessels, such as ferries and cargo ships. That underwater noise can keep orcas from finding what little salmon there is by interfering with their use of echolocation, their way of detecting food.

Follow Nicole Jennings on Twitter or email her here

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Southern Resident orcas hit Puget Sound absence record in 2021