The region’s endangered Southern Resident orca population continues to decline, recently reaching 73 whales.
The nonprofit Center for Whale Research announced this week that three whales of various ages and across the three family groups, or pods, have been missing and are now presumed dead.
Those whales include a 42-year-old female from J pod, 28-year-old male from K pod and 29-year-old male from L pod.
The female is the mother orca who captured the attention of the region in mid-2018, when she carried her dead calf with her for 17 days.
She and one of the male orcas appeared in poor health for some time, according to the Center for Whale Research.
The recent deaths bring the population of the species to a low unseen since the 1970s and 1980s, after several were captured for entertainment purposes decades ago.
Whale experts say the Southern Resident orcas are struggling to survive due to a lack of food compounded by the interference of boat traffic with their ability to hunt and the accumulation of water pollutants in their bodies.
The orcas eat salmon and prefer chinook, which are also declining in some areas throughout the whales’ West Coast range. Noise from boat traffic including tanker ships, ferries and recreational boats also interferes with the whales’ ability to use echolocation to hunt for the remaining fish.
As the whales lose weight, pollutants locked up in their blubber can enter their bloodstreams and cause health problems.
Citing the contribution of stormwater runoff — meaning rainwater that can carry materials such as oil from leaking vehicles and dog poop from lawns into area streams and ultimately the Puget Sound — to water pollution that harms the orcas, environment groups recently challenged the legality of certain state rules.
The Puget Soundkeeper Alliance appealed the state Department of Ecology’s stormwater permits to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board. The alliance is being represented by attorneys at Earthjustice.
Representatives from the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and Earthjustice said in a news release that polluted stormwater runoff is the leading source of contamination in Puget Sound that impacts salmon and in turn orca whales.
“The overall magnitude of the municipal stormwater pollution problem in Puget Sound dwarfs other sources,” Earthjustice attorney Janette Brimmer said in the release. “The development that lies at the heart of the stormwater problem is profoundly damaging to salmon habitat and the ability of salmon and orcas to recover from their endangered status in Western Washington.”
The groups argue that Ecology’s most recent permits meant to regulate stormwater don’t do enough to reduce pollution as required under the federal Clean Water Act.
The Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency that seeks to restore and protect the Puget Sound, issued a statement from its executive director Laura Blackmore regarding the apparent deaths of the orcas.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the presumed deaths of three endangered Southern Resident orcas,” Blackmore said. “These new losses cut deeply, and we grieve with all those who mourn these symbols of Puget Sound. Our orcas are dying because the marine environment they live in is ailing and there are too few salmon for them to eat.”
She called upon people to take steps to help reduce their impact on the Sound, citing boat noise and toxic chemical use for lawn care and other uses as contributors to the environmental issues that are impacting the orcas.