The southern resident killer whales that typically frequent the Salish Sea from May to October were not seen for an unprecedented eight weeks in May and June, prompting some who study the mammals to worry about the future of the species.
Members of all three pods — J-Pod, K-Pod and L-Pod — were spotted off the southwest coast of Vancouver Island in the last days of June, but their change in behaviour has scientists worried.
On June 27 and 28, four members of L-Pod were seen near Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, and on June 30, members of all three pods were seen near Pachena Lighthouse, including a new calf with its mother, J31.
There are just 76 endangered resident orcas remaining, down from 98 in 1995. That number includes two calves born this year.
The resident orcas live between southeastern Alaska and central California. During the summer months, they’re known to spend time in the waters off B.C. and Washington state.
Before the sightings in late June, reports had put them on the west coast of Vancouver Island near Tofino and off the coast of California.
The resident whales have been struggling for years due to pollution, noise from boat traffic and lack of food.
The two calves born this year are the first successful births since 2016 and scientists say the lack of births is a sign the animals aren’t healthy and aren’t finding enough to eat.
Many agree that the greatest threat to the resident orcas is a decline in the chinook salmon, which the whales depend on for food.
Michael Weiss, a biologist at the Center for Whale Research, said the whales typically come to the Salish Sea during the summer because they’re following the salmon that migrate to the Fraser River to spawn. But since 2003, the salmon run to the Fraser has collapsed, Weiss said. The Washington-state-based research centre collects demographic data on southern resident killer whales that has been used by both the Canadian and U.S. governments to shape management policies.
“The fact that [the whales] aren’t here means they do not believe they are going to find enough food here, or, at least, that there are better foraging areas,” he said.
The hope is that the whales were finding salmon to eat elsewhere and Weiss said there are reports from fishermen of healthy chinook runs on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
The orcas’ absence from the Salish Sea for most of May and June is also an indication of the deteriorating health of the Salish Sea ecosystem, Weiss said.
“It means that there’s something really, really wrong here that this population of animals that has used this area as their core habitat going back at least two generations has started to abandon it.”
Susan Berta of Orca Network, a Washington-based non-profit that operates education and outreach programs to raise awareness about whale conservation, agrees with Weiss that the whales’ long absence signals trouble for the Salish Sea.
“What have we done to the ecosystem and the whole food web for them to basically leave the area, because they aren’t being sustained?” she said.
With whales returning, researchers will have a chance to see which ones survived the winter and how healthy they are.
Increasing pollution and a decrease in prey are blamed for the lack of successful births between 2016 and 2019, but Weiss emphasized the decline in salmon numbers is the most significant factor.
Transient killer whales, which feed on seals and sea lions, are thriving. Weiss said that’s because their prey is plentiful. The transient whales face the same challenges with marine traffic and noise, and absorb more toxins, because they prey on mammals.
Berta said there are a number of reasons why the salmon population is decreasing, including toxins in the water, an increase in seals and sea lions that prey on the fish, human consumption and rising water temperatures due to climate change.
New regulations designed to protect the resident orcas came into effect in June. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans established three new whale sanctuaries at Swiftsure Bank and around Pender and Saturna Islands that are off-limits to vehicle traffic from June 1 to Oct. 31, and doubled the mandatory no-go zones around the whales to 400 metres from 200 metres. A ban on recreational and commercial salmon fishing in key foraging areas will come into effect on July 15 or July 31, depending on the area.
Weiss said the regulations are well-intentioned, but aren’t based on science. Studies about the effect of boat noise on whales show that increasing the distance between the two is not a good way to reduce the disturbance.
The issue is actually about the number of boats present and the speed at which they travel, making it more important to focus on limiting the speed of boats, and to cap the number of boats that can be on the water, Weiss said.
Many whale-watching companies have already agreed to reduce speeds when within one kilometre of killer whales, he said.
“I think I would prefer the regulations focus more on what the science actually says and put a little more energy into the salmon issue and not as much into getting people further away from the whales.”
Asked to respond to Weiss’s comments on the new regulations, DFO communications adviser Lara Sloan provided an emailed statement: “Noise is a large issue when killer whales are trying to feed. They use echolocation to find, and hunt their prey, so underwater noise from boat and ship engines can make it difficult to forage.”
Not everyone is worried about the resident killer whales’ long absence from the Salish Sea.
Mark Malleson, a senior skipper at Prince of Whales whale-watching tours and an assistant researcher for Fisheries and Oceans, said he isn’t concerned about the change in behaviour. He believes the resident whales are doing well and finding enough salmon away from the Salish Sea.
Malleson said he has heard of many sightings of the resident whales in other locations. He also thinks salmon populations are doing well, based on reports from fishermen and his own observations.
The thriving transient killer whale population has made this summer some of the best whale watching he’s experienced in his 22 years in the industry, he said.