This week, the Canadian government announced a slew of measures to save the critically endangered species. The $61.5 million (US$50 million) initiative will address three key threats to the orcas: a lack of chinook salmon, the whales' favored prey; contaminants in the water; and vessel traffic and noise that interferes with their hunting abilities, according to a news release from the Fisheries and Oceans department.
The Canadian government is also looking to create new areas of critical habitat off the west coast of Vancouver Island for the killer whales, fisheries minister Jonathan Wilkinson told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. The Swiftsure in the Juan de Fuca Strait between Vancouver Island and Washington state, and La Perouse Bank off Tofino will be areas that the marine animals can call home, he said.
"We are in the process of consulting on those new critical habitat areas and expect to be able to move forward on them in the next couple of months," Wilkinson explained. "We are also talking about creation of killer whale sanctuaries, which essentially are within the areas of critical habitat ... which means that we can prohibit a range of different activities, not simply fisheries, where you can regulate that ships cannot go."
These efforts are part of a previously announced $167.4 million Whales Initiative to save the southern residents, whose population has dipped to only 74 individuals, down from 98 in 1995.
Their plight was underscored this summer when a mother whale Tahlequah, or J35, carried her dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles in her heartbreaking "tour of grief" this August, according to the Center for Whale Research.
The next month, the ailing J50, another member of Tahlequah's pod, was declared missing and presumed dead after a three-day search in the waters between Washington state and Canada.
#Orca Whale #J50 'Missing and Now Presumed Dead' https://t.co/dLEFpXP6hB @NOAA @CWROrcas @oceana— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1537030830.0
Governments in Canada and the U.S. have made efforts to revive the iconic species. Earlier this year, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order to aid their recovery and the Chinook salmon they eat.
But will these efforts be enough to save the imperiled orcas? The majority of 74 southern residents left in the wild are not reproducing, meaning the opportunity to have more births than deaths is dwindling, Seattle's King 5 reported in September. Only two males are fathering all of the calves and only a few females are reproducing.
"There's only about four females having babies in the last decade," Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb told the news station.
What's more, 75 percent of newborns in the recent two have not survived, and 100 percent of the pregnancies in the past three years have failed to produce viable offspring, the center notes.
"Without reproduction, there is no chance of survival," Balcomb said. "This is what extinction looks like in slow motion."
Correction: The headline of this article has been updated to provide greater clarity.
These whales are suffering a slow-motion #extinction. Learn more on our latest #blog: https://t.co/XTEbf4f5gw… https://t.co/eh5Mc1Wo9Z— Oceana (@Oceana)1540920619.0
Tahlequah—a southern resident killer whale whose heartbreaking story has captured attention around the world—has been carrying her dead calf for more than two weeks now.
But Balcomb said Tahlequah might drop the calf soon because its body is starting to deteriorate. A recent image shows that its intestine and blubber has been exposed.
The baby whale was born near Victoria, British Columbia on July 24 and was seen alive and swimming with its mother, referred by scientists as J35, and other members of its "J" pod. The newborn died half an hour after its birth.
It's not unusual for orcas to carry their dead offspring for about a day or so, but this is likely the longest period researchers have observed.
"I certainly think the length of the situation is unprecedented," Sheila Thornton, lead killer-whale scientist for Fisheries and Oceans Canada said to The Times. "There are many species who do undertake this sort of behavior if a young animal has failed to survive, they will carry the carcass, you can look at that as mourning behavior."
Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca told The Times on Wednesday she is "gravely concerned for the health and mental well being of J35."
"Even if her family is foraging for and sharing fish with her, J35 cannot be getting the … nutrition she needs to regain any body-mass loss that would have naturally occurred during the gestation of her fetus and also additional loss of nutrition during these weeks of mourning," Giles added.
Scientists have also raised flags about a 3-year-old orca called Scarlet, also known as J50, who is part of the same pod as Tahlequah.
"J50 appears lethargic at times with periods of activity, including feeding. Scientists observing her agree that she is in poor condition and may not survive," according to NOAA Fisheries.
Government officials and other experts are exploring options to aid Scarlet, ranging from no intervention to providing medical treatment, potentially delivered in a live Chinook salmon, their favored prey.
The stories of the ailing whales have highlighted the plight of the critically endangered species and have renewed efforts to save them. The current population of southern resident killer whales has dipped to only 75 individuals.
"The recent, tragic death of the orca calf is heartbreaking and we all feel the pain of the mother and her pod," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted last week. "Protecting and restoring the complex ecosystem these beautiful animals rely on will take a lot of work. There are no do-overs with the orcas. We must get this right."
Their decline has been attributed to pollution, underwater noise and disturbances from boat traffic, and lack of Chinook salmon. Recent deaths, particularly among calves, mothers and pregnant whales, appear to be driven by food scarcity, the Center for Whale Research says.
Members of Inslee's task force met Tuesday to discuss the emergency situation and how to improve the orcas' health and numbers. The task force will issue a comprehensive report and recommendations for recovering the species, with a full draft due by Oct. 1 and a final report the following month.
Orca Whale 'Crewser' Presumed Dead as Population Reaches Its Lowest Point since 1984 https://t.co/dOsGudmYW4… https://t.co/jxiN1Dl6tw— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1529339255.0
- With Just 76 Orcas Left, Washington Gov. Orders Protections for ... ›
- Orca Mother Who Carried Dead Calf 17 Days Is Pregnant Again - EcoWatch ›
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
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Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Researchers scanned the waters all day before the mother orca and her deceased newborn turned up near British Columbia's Southern Gulf Islands.
"I am relieved we see her, that she is healthy and swimming strongly, and that she is with her family," Taylor Shedd of Soundwatch, which has been monitoring the pod, told the publication. "But it is so emotional that she is so caring. It boggles my mind. To carry it is hard for her physically and mentally. It is just heartbreaking."
The baby whale was born near Victoria, British Columbia on July 24. The newborn was seen alive and swimming with its mother, Tahlequah, and other members of its pod near Clover Point on the Victoria shoreline in the mid-morning but died a short time after, according to the Washington-based Center for Whale Research.
"The baby's carcass was sinking and being repeatedly retrieved by the mother who was supporting it on her forehead and pushing it in choppy seas toward San Juan Island, USA," the center said in a press release. "The mother continued supporting and pushing the dead baby whale throughout the day until at least sunset."
It's not unusual for orcas to carry their dead offspring for about a day or so, researchers told NPR. However, Jenny Atkinson, executive director of The Whale Museum on San Juan Island, noted this is the longest period researchers have observed.
Researchers are also concerned about Tahlequah's health.
"I am so terrified for her well-being," Deborah Giles, a research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca, told The Seattle Times. "She is a 20-year-old breeding-age female, and we need her."
The story of the "grieving" orca mother has captured international attention as the population of southern resident killer whales fights to survive.
In June, the Center for Whale Research reported that a 23-year-old male orca was missing and presumed dead, leaving the community of orcas with just 75 individuals remaining.
The population grew 48 percent to a high of 98 in 1995, but has since fallen to their lowest number in 30 years.
Experts say their decline is due to pollution, underwater noise and disturbances from boat traffic, and lack of their favored prey, Chinook salmon. Recent deaths, particularly among calves, mothers and pregnant whales, appear to be driven by food scarcity, according to the Center for Whale Research.
"The larger environmental question reflected in the J35 story is that both the USA and Canada MUST redouble efforts to restore wild salmon (particularly Chinook) throughout Washington State and British Columbia for a food supply for the SRKW in this region," the center tweeted last week, citing a statement from founder and senior scientist Ken Balcomb.
The larger environmental question reflected in the J35 story is that both the USA and Canada MUST redouble efforts… https://t.co/QYd4Ak0eUg— Whale Research (@Whale Research)1532727020.0
"The diets of southern resident orcas consist largely of Chinook salmon, but the Chinook are listed on federal and state endangered species lists," Inslee's office stated. "If the Chinook population continues to decline, the southern resident orca population will follow."
Orca Whale 'Crewser' Presumed Dead as Population Reaches Its Lowest Point Since 1984 https://t.co/DnswjvwhXG… https://t.co/1apBKA0gF5— Sea Shepherd SSCS (@Sea Shepherd SSCS)1529448773.0