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2018: The Year Northwest Orcas Recover?

Northwest orcas are suffering from a lack of food, particularly salmon. (Ingrid Taylar/Flickr)
Northwest orcas are suffering from a lack of food, particularly salmon. (Ingrid Taylar/Flickr)
December 14, 2017

SEATTLE -- The devastating video of a starving polar bear has pulled on Americans' heartstrings this week. And scientists say West Coast orcas are in a similarly dire situation.

The population of southern resident killer whales dropped to 76, the lowest number in 30 years. Southern residents are the only community, or “clan," of killer whales on the endangered species list, and they spend part of the year in Puget Sound.

Catherine Kilduff, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said they've had a terribly hard year. She said there actually is drone footage of emaciated whales, much like the polar bear.

"In the case of southern resident killer whales, it's because they're not finding salmon,” Kilduff said. "And a lot of that is because there's not enough being released from dams, or the dams really ought to be taken down in the long term, for example in the lower Snake River. But we have to address these problems that are limiting the killer whales' food availability."

Research has found the southern residents have had greater competition for fish in recent years, from harbor seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals. Kilduff said climate change is also playing a role in the orcas' dwindling numbers.

Reproduction is down as well.

An orca calf that disappeared in September was last seen with a condition known as "peanut head," where areas around the blowhole that should be filled with fat instead are concave, indicating starvation. The situation for southern residents becomes more critical with each passing year, but Kilduff said 2018 could be the year things change.

"We don't need additional time before we take action, so there's really no excuse for 2018 not to be just the year of action for southern resident killer whales,” she said. "They're so iconic to Puget Sound, they're so important to the ecosystem and to tourism."

Kilduff said the best way to support the whales is to designate more waters off the West Coast critical habitat. The Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations submitted more than 100,000 signatures supporting this plan in 2016, and Kilduff said the government promised to make a decision on it in 2017. But she said plans for conservation efforts during the Trump administration have fallen on deaf ears.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA