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With Death of Calf, Time Running Out to Save NW Orcas

There are only about 75 Southern Resident orcas left in the Northwest. (C. Emmons/NOAA Fisheries)
There are only about 75 Southern Resident orcas left in the Northwest. (C. Emmons/NOAA Fisheries)
July 31, 2018

SEATTLE – The death of a calf among the Northwest's iconic Southern Resident orcas is highlighting the grave situation the whales are in.

The newborn calf, part of a pod that migrates through Puget Sound known as J pod, died last week. Its mother has been seen carrying the dead calf since then.

Robb Krehbiel, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, says the endangered Southern Residents have struggled to reproduce, with numbers down to 75 – the lowest in three decades – and this latest death is a major blow.

"It could have been something really exciting and it could have been a cause for celebration, but instead it's a cause for sorrow and it's a reminder of just how imperiled these whales are," he laments.

Krehbiel is part of a working group informing the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force convened by Gov. Jay Inslee in March.

This tragedy now is the backdrop for the group's conversations on saving the whales. Krehbiel says it's important to get the whales more salmon and reduce pollution and noise from ships.

Dr. Deborah Giles, a killer-whale biologist at the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology, has been following J pod in the wake of the death, and says it's taken an emotional toll on her to watch the mother grieving over the past week.

Giles is on two working groups informing the task force and says its assembly is the most hopeful sign she's seen for the species since her research began more than a decade ago. However, she says the best short-term solution for getting these starving whales more salmon would require some hard decisions.

"The best thing that we could do for these whales is ease the pressure on fishing," she says. "We need to leave more fish in the water for the whales to find right now. And I'm not sure that all of the different interests that rely on fish are going to be able to make that decision."

For long-term fixes, Giles says changes need to be made to how rivers are managed – possibly including the removal of dams – so that salmon can thrive again in the Northwest. She warns something big has to be done in the next five years to save these orcas.

"I don't think that anybody wants to have the Southern Residents go extinct," she adds. "We have a very short window of time to act."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA