What the Loss of 3 Southern Resident Killer Whales Means

In early August, three Southern Resident killer whales were declared dead by the Center for Whale Research, bringing the population down to just 73. Each of the dead whales are from separate Southern Resident pods. 

“There is nothing good about losing three animals in a population that was numbered at 76,” said SeaDoc Science Director Joe Gaydos. “In no way can I find a silver lining to this news.”

For the death of 42-year-old mother J17, it’s about more than the loss of an individual whale. Research published in 2012 shows that sons younger than 30 years old, like J44 who is only 10, are three-times more likely to die in the year following their mother’s death.

Washington State and the federal governments in the US and Canada have enacted emergency measures to try to help, but it’s not enough. Many salmon-recovery efforts in Washington State are still not funded, and the cost of culverts will cost $3 billion alone. Backlogged and new projects could easily use another $1 billion over the next five years. That’s all before you even consider the steady drumbeat around the removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River.

Meanwhile, Canada continues to move forward with the Trans Mountain pipeline, which will increase vessel noise, increase risk of oil spill, and increase risk of vessel strike in killer whales—as we saw with J34, the 18-year-old male who was killed by a vessel strike in December of 2016.

If saving Southern Resident killer whales is really the emergency we are talking about, we should be treating it as such and take a no-holds-barred stance on recovery.

J17 was born in 1977, she is a 42-year-old mother to J53, a five-year-old calf who was born the same year as J50, the whale whose death captured international headlines last year. J53 has been seen repeatedly traveling with her older sister, J35 (Tahlequah) a 21-year-old who carried her dead calf for 17 days in the summer of 2018. J17 is also mother to J44, a 10-year-old male.

K25 was born 1991 and would be 28 years old this year. His mother was K13, who died two years ago at age 45. K25’s death fits with our understanding that males are more likely to die after their mom dies (Foster et al., 2012). We had an idea that K25 and J17 were in poor body condition starting last year.

L84 was born in 1990 and would be 29 years old this year. He was the last of a matriline of 11 whales, 10 of whom, including his mom, have died. L84 had been traveling with the L54s. According to a publication by Ellis et al. in 2017, males of lower social ranking are more likely to die in years of low salmon abundance. L84 is an example of one such whale. We don’t fully understand this, but it could be due to their lacking an older post-reproductive female to help them find salmon in lean years.