For orcas who frequent northwest waters, it’s been a rough couple of years.
The critically endangered southern resident orcas – the whales surviving on salmon – face possible extinction within 100 years, according to a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports.
And 2016 was the deadliest year for southern resident orcas who frequent northwest waters in nearly two decades: six southern residents died. As of last year, there were only 79 left. Their diet consists almost entirely of Chinook salmon — a food source whose population has been cut in half since the 1980s.
With it being another poor year for Chinook salmon, researchers believe that the whales spent most of the summer in the open ocean rather than near the San Juan Islands, where they’ve traditionally foraged and socialized. Most of the orcas seen over the summer – usually the best time for whale watching – were transient, mammal-eating killer whales.
But whale researchers and watchers are encouraged by recent orca sightings as we move into winter.
Since fall started, the whales have been seen nearly daily moving freely between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound -- delighting ferry commuters and whale watchers alike.
Jeff Friedman, president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which comprises roughly 30 whale watch companies in Washington and British Columbia, is optimistic about the trend.
"It's been encouraging to see the resident orcas regularly this fall after so few appearances this summer. It tells us what we already know: the whales will go where they can eat. It also tells us that if we can restore their summer runs of Chinook salmon, they will return to the inland waters more frequently, like they used to. More fish, more blackfish."
Researchers believe that the orcas are feeding on chum salmon.
“Chinook salmon remains important to them year-round," said Orca Behavior Institute President Monika Wieland Shields. "But from prey studies, we know their diet diversifies at this time of year to include other salmonid species including chum, coho and steelhead."
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