Puget Sound’s orca population falling, census finds
With two new deaths this year and no new calves since 2012, the population of endangered killer whales in the Puget Sound continues to decline.
The number of whales in J, K and L pods has dropped to 78, a level not seen since 1985, according to a census by the Center for Whale Research. Adding to the concerns, the whales appear to be “splintering” from their pods, which are their basic social groups.
Since 1976, Ken Balcomb of the research center has been observing the Puget Sound orcas, or Southern Residents as they’re known among scientists. Balcomb compiles an annual census of the population for submission to the federal government.
Balcomb suggests that the primary factor for the population decline is a lack of food for the killer whales, which generally prey on chinook salmon passing through the San Juan Islands on the way back to Canada’s Fraser River. The whales have a strong preference for chinook, typically larger and fatter fish, but they will eat other species of salmon and even other fish sometimes.
"The salmon issue is huge, and it is ongoing," Balcomb said.
Chinook runs continue to decline in most areas, and state and federal salmon managers seem unable to turn the situation around, he said. Society’s dependence on hatcheries, harvest and hydropower have diluted the wild salmon populations and made long-term recovery increasingly difficult.