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Boaters asked to support Southern Resident orcas as 2-year-old calf in ‘poor condition’

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Recreational boaters are asked to “Be Whale Wise” and support endangered Southern Resident orcas by giving them extra space. The request follows news that a 2-year-old female calf is in “poor condition,” according to a release from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Born in May 2019, J56, also known as Tofino, appeared to have declined in health by September 2020 and worsened still based on an observation this week, the release stated.

Officials said the orca’s skin was pale and her body condition showed a decline bordering on a “poor” rating after an assessment in September 2020.

On Wednesday, SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3) observed the calf again, and “her paleness had not improved, and her body condition had further declined.”

“The news of Tofino’s worsening condition further emphasizes the harrowing truth that Southern Resident killer whales are in trouble,” said Kelly Susewind, WDFW director. “The loss of even one young individual in the Southern Resident population is too great. By following Be Whale Wise regulations, boaters can help to give Tofino a fighting chance.”

Officials said a recent study showed whales who are in poor condition “have a significantly higher chance of dying.

“Many partners are working together to address all of the threats to the whales. We know having enough prey and vessel impacts are connected, and the science tells us that the whales hunt more successfully when they have enough space and quiet,” said Lynne Barre, NOAA Fisheries Recovery Coordinator for the Southern Residents. “With all of the regionwide efforts to increase Chinook salmon available to the whales, this is where everyone out on the water can do their part to help the whales by giving them that space.”

According to recent research published by NOAA Fisheries, female orcas often give up combing for food when boats come within 400 yards, and it is very concerning for pregnant or nursing mothers caring for their calves.

This Labor Day weekend, boaters are asked to abide by the “Be Whale Wise” rules, allowing whales to move about, feed and socialize.

State law requires vessels to stay at least 300 yards from a whale and at 400 yards out of their path or behind the orcas.

WDFW and NOAA Fisheries enforcement officers will be out patrolling to help enforce protection rules.

One thing that will help boaters while on the water is watching for the Whale Warning Flag, which is an optional tool from the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, letting boaters know whales might be nearby. When boaters see the flag, they should slow down and follow the “Be Whale Wise” rules.

For more information about the regulations, visit BeWhaleWise.org.

“We urge all boaters to give Tofino and her extended family extra space out on the water, this holiday weekend and beyond,” said Nora Nickum, Ocean Policy Manager at the Seattle Aquarium. “Extra space and quieter waters will give the endangered orcas a better chance to find salmon and share that food with each other.”