When a dead female orca from the endangered Southern Residents washed ashore with a fetus inside her, it set off all kinds of alarms. Three weeks later, a new calf's birth eased those fears a little -- but not much.
January 14, 2015

[Cross-posted at Orcinus.]

A shudder went down the collective spines of the Pacific Northwest's orca-watching community when the news came in, back in early December, that the much-beloved female numbered J32, otherwise known as Rhapsody, had washed up on shore on the western coast of Vancouver Island. And as the details came in, the shudder became a feeling of deep dread.

After all, Rhapsody was only 18 years old -- just beginning the prime of her reproductive years. (Yes, orca lives are indeed very similar to human lives in both longevity and their natural cycles.) For a population of killer whales that is officially listed as endangered, and with only a handful of breeding-age females remaining, the loss of even a single such orca is devastating.

The only silver lining in the situation was the fact that she washed ashore: Orcas typically just sink to the bottom of the ocean when they die, and so human scientists rarely ever get to examine them. This would at least give us a chance to try to figure out what is killing the endangered Southern Residents.

The news became much worse still as examiners began performing the necropsy. Observers that summer had wondered if Rhapsody might be pregnant, since she sported a "bump" indicating a baby when she breached. Sure enough, she was bearing an infant that had died in utero.

The eventual details of the necropsy revealed that J32 had been dead for at least three days when her body washed up, and that the fetus inside her had been dead for even longer. The likely conclusion was that the fetus had died inside her, and that she had perished from infection after failing to successfully discharge it.

J32's death set off all kinds of alarms, both in the scientific community and in the general public in the Puget Sound region, which reveres the Southern Residents for being the awe-inspiring symbol of our environmental health that they are. It meant that the population had been reduced to 78 whales, very near the breaking point for long-term genetic viability. And a critical piece of the population's recovery had been lost.

As Ken Balcomb, the chief scientist at the Center for Whale Research, put it in a Seattle Times piece:

“The death of this particular whale for me shows that we’re at a point in history where we need to wake up to what we have to consider: ‘Do we want whales or not?’ ”

Balcomb explained further in the necropsy report: "I think we must restore abundant healthy prey resources ASAP if these whales are to have any chance of avoiding extinction. The critical point for their recovery may already have passed. I hope not, but it will soon pass if we do not take immediate action."

Balcomb noted that, with Rhapsody's passing, there are only about a dozen reproductively viable females remaining in this population, and "very little possible recruitment to this cohort
within the next few years."

However, a few weeks later, news came that there had, indeed, been fresh potential "recruitment."

Just before New Year's Eve, a whale watching boat observed a new calf swimming with J16, aka Slick, and CWR researchers quickly confirmed the sighting. A few days later, it was confirmed that the new calf, now designated J50, in fact is a female.

All around, that is terrific news, and suggests once again that Nature is always able to bounce back if we give it a chance. But the fragility of the good news also underscores the generally tenuous state of the Southern Residents.

No one is sure whether any new calf will even survive its first year. Many orca young perish during their first few months because the entirety of their diet is their mother's milk. And orca females' milk is laden with all kinds of toxins -- heavy metals, PCBs, and other chemicals -- that they absorb through their frequently polluted diets. This is acutely true of female orcas' firstborn calves, because the milk they receive is often laden with years of toxic buildup. As a result, orca watchers will not even name a new calf beyond its numerical designation until its second year, when its chances for survival then rise dramatically.

Indeed, the most recent birth among the Southern Residents, a calf born in the L Pod designated L120, lived only seven weeks after its birth in the summer of 2014.

However, this is Slick's sixth calf (she is 43 years old now), and three of those calves have now survived and swim with her daily as part of her pod. So there is at least reasonable hope that this one will survive.

Still, there have been some ominous signs: Balcomb and his crew observed rake marks on the calf's dorsal fin, indicating that other orcas had been forced to pull her out of her mother's womb. There was even some concern that Slick might not be her real mother and had been "adopted" after the apparently difficult birth, possibly for one of Slick's daughters, J36.

However, Howard Garrett of the Orca Network tells me that those concerns have largely abated. "I'm pretty sure J16 is the mom," he said via email. "J50 has only been seen with J16, and never with J36 with J16 right there. All the behavior so far tells me it's J16."

The starkness of the situation involving the death of J32 while giving birth, and the fragile birth of J-50, has brought the underlying issue front and center: The decline of the salmon runs upon which the orcas depend for their primary diet.

As a result, environmentalists in the region are gearing up to engage the fight for orca and salmon recovery on a broad series of fronts. One group, the Orca Recovery Citizens Alliance, wants to create a protected zone for the orcas that will require boats to go slowly in their vicinity, among other things.

But the key effort will entail restoring the Columbia River's runs of Chinook. As I've explained previously:

It's become increasingly obvious in recent years that one of the major obstacles facing the recovery of the Puget Sound's endangered killer whales has been the serious decline in their food supply -- primarily chinook salmon -- particularly in the winter months, when chinook are at their scarcest in these waters.

The orcas historically spend those months seeking prey primarily along the continental shelf of the Pacific Coast, ranging as far south as northern California and as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands. And historically, their primary source of chinook along that range has been salmon from the Columbia River -- some 80-90 percent of salmon in that habitat used to originate from the Columbia.

However, those runs are now at about 1 percent of their historical levels. Of course, the bounty of salmon used to be so immense that there never was a food problem for the orcas before. Now, they're scraping to get by. And four dams on the Snake River (the
largest and longest of the Columbia's tributaries) that have no fish ladders and turn the free-flowing river (an attribute necessary for fingerlings) into a long series of relatively stagnant reservoirs are probably the biggest single cause of the problem.

I was one of the first journalists to write about the connection between these dams and the orca recovery efforts, in a Seattle Weekly piece I wrote in 2006:

Historically, the largest single source of chinook in the Northwest's Pacific coastal waters during the winter and spring has been the Columbia River. The role that they could play in the orcas' health was underscored two years ago by a Washington Department of Fish and
Wildlife report on killer whales that observed, "Perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s has been the decline of salmon in the Columbia River basin."

Already, early recovery efforts for the Columbia salmon runs -- involving the collection and barging of young salmon smolt making their way downstream around the dams -- have proven spectacularly successful. Last year a million Chinook made their way up the river -- a new record since counts began in the 1960s. This year, there were 2 million.

Scientists and activists, however, say this is only a drop in the bucket for the actual potential for recovery. The real gains will come, they argue, when those four Snake River dams come down.

That's why they are currently organizing to force Washington state's politicians to show some real political courage by doing the right thing: Take up the mantle of the orcas' recovery and take those dams down.

A recent piece by David Kirby in The Dodo examined the larger picture of dam removal as a key component of salmon and orca recovery. It's not just the Columbia, either.

Dams recently came down on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula, and the speed with which salmon have been recovering their population there has been astonishing.

However, the Elwha is a relatively small river system with limited potential for salmon numbers once they recover. If Puget Sounders really wish to become serious about orca and salmon recovery, they need to examine the larger river systems pouring into Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, because that is where we will see real salmon abundance.

We're talking about rivers like the Skagit -- where dams that provide the city of Seattle with cheap power block one of the major tributaries, and where farmers occupy much of the key spawning grounds in the river delta -- and the Nisqually, where similar conditions conspire to keep salmon-recovery efforts still in the infant stages.

For now, activists are focusing their efforts on the Columbia, because that is the biggest fight with the greatest potential payoff for the salmon. But eventually, they will need to begin dealing with the fights in their own back yards as well.

If they do not, then the bad news for the fate of the Southern Residents will continue to roll in. And the good news will become scarce to the point of vanishing altogether.

P.S. One way you can help easily is to go sign this petition at Change.org:

Stand with us and support removing the four lower Snake River dams to save the Southern Resident Killer Whales from being dammed to extinction

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