Expert on Puget Sound’s demographics of the critically endangered southern residents says two more orcas are ailing and probably will be dead by summer.
The Seattle Times reports Center for Whale Research founding director Ken Balcomb says photos taken of J17 on New Year’s Eve showed the 42-year-old female has so-called peanut head, a misshapen head and neck caused by starvation.
In addition a 27-year-old male known as K25 is dying as well, also from lack of sufficient food. He lost his mother, K13, in 2017 and has not been successful on his own.
Losing J17 would be a real blow to the southern residents because she is a female still of reproducing age, said Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca.
Several whales were documented to be pregnant in September, but so far there has been no sign of babies. The southern residents haven’t had a successful pregnancy in three years.
Currently there are only 74 of the orcas left in the region and the population has reached a 35-year low after three deaths in 2018.
The coming year is not looking better for the southern residents in terms of their food supply. The whales mostly eat chinook salmon.
Ocean conditions and poor river migration, with warm water and low flows, have hurt chinook salmon returns in the past several years.
The southern residents are struggling to survive amid waters influenced by more than 6 million people, between Vancouver and Seattle, with pollution, habitat degradation and fishery declines.
The decline of the whales is a warning as climate change and coastal development continue to reshape Puget Sound and the rest of the planet.