Missing orcas may have been dining off California

VANCOUVER — When southern resident killer whales failed to show up in B.C. coastal waters in late June, as they usually do, it caused handwringing among whale-watchers.

But if the orcas were late showing up for dinner in B.C., it could have been because they were still at the buffet in California, which is reported to be experiencing one of the best chinook returns in about a decade.

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“I think the California return was a game-changer this year,” said Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia.

“That is huge news. That is so important because this is a key part of their habitat.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, California is “overflowing” with salmon, while the San Francisco Chronicle quoted commercial fishermen who said this year’s catch is the largest in a decade.

Sport fishermen in B.C. are also reporting, anecdotally, that chinook in B.C. waters appear to be returning in moderately higher numbers on Vancouver Island and the central coast.

A chinook abundance in California probably explains why southern resident killer whales did not show up as usual in Puget Sound, Trites said. After all, California, not B.C. or Washington, is the orcas’ primary range. They spend only a few months in the summer in B.C. waters to feed.

“They likely found themselves with a lot of fish elsewhere in their range before getting here, and they just didn’t come because there’s so much fish to eat before getting here,” Trites said.

“Even though the world thinks that it’s only British Columbia and Puget Sound that matters, this is really a tiny piece of their range.”

Members of all three pods were spotted off the southwest coast of Vancouver Island in the last days of June.

The southern resident killer whale population has been in decline in recent years. It is assumed that decline is largely due to a fall in numbers of chinook salmon, the orcas’ main diet.

Martin Paish, a director for the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C., said reports from fishermen and the Albion test fishery suggest there is cause for some optimism for this year’s chinook returns.

“Anecdotal evidence that I’m hearing, all the way up the west coast of Vancouver Island, all the way to Haida Gwaii, is that abundance is significantly greater than it has been in any of the previous three or four years,” he said.

“People are describing the fishing activity at the north end of Vancouver Island as some of the best that’s been seen in decades.

“We’re hearing from folks that are going out and doing catch-release fishing on Juan de Fuca Strait is that abundance is significantly greater in the Juan de Fuca Strait area than we’ve seen for a long time.”

He said stock assessment biologists have confirmed the Albion test fishery recently came up with an estimate of 45,000 to 50,000 spring and summer mid-Fraser chinook, which would put the returns at a moderate abundance.

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