After an unprecedented absence of about eight weeks from the Salish Sea, some Southern Resident orcas were seen back in area waters Friday morning.
“As of about 8 a.m., at least some and maybe all the Southern Residents are back in the San Juans, at last,” Orca Network co-founder Howard Garrett said.
The whales were reportedly seen moving north through Haro Strait, between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island.
Garrett said another source of regional Southern Resident orca experts, the Center for Whale Research, spent the day working to determine exactly which whales were present.
The sighting comes after the iconic and endangered Southern Resident orcas, also known as killer whales, weren’t seen in the waters of the Salish Sea shared by Washington and British Columbia for at least two months.
Of the three family groups — called J, K and L pods — one was last seen in the region in January, one in February and one in May.
The absence is unusual for the whales, which typically spend much of May through September in the area, primarily hunting chinook salmon from the Fraser River.
While the endangered Southern Resident orcas were missing from their usual summer habitat, a group began working to draw a clearer connection between the region’s chinook salmon and the whales’ movements throughout the West Coast.
“The aim is to get at: What prey are available and when?” Teresa Mongillo of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region said at the group’s July 2 meeting.
The group includes staff from NOAA’s Fisheries and members of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, as well as state and tribal representatives from throughout the region.
The group was established in April to take a closer look at the impact of ocean fisheries on the Washington, Oregon and California coasts on Southern Resident orcas.
The group — called the Southern Resident Killer Whales and Fisheries Interaction Workgroup — will consider how to limit ocean fishery impacts on chinook salmon stocks important to the Southern Residents.
Jeromy Jording of NOAA Fisheries and co-chair of the group said the work is timely, since preventing extinction of the Southern Resident orcas and understanding why they’ve been absent from the Salish Sea is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
The group is expected to have recommendations prepared by the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s November meeting. That will make it possible to incorporate potential changes into the 2020 fisheries, which must be planned by the spring.
The group’s findings will also inform NOAA Fisheries’ ongoing work under the Endangered Species Act, in which the agency must determine whether the coastal chinook fisheries jeopardize the continued existence of the Southern Resident orcas, according to the agency website.
Ben Enticknap of the nonprofit Oceana and Deborah Giles of the nonprofit Wild Orca urged the new group at its recent meeting to consider the unusual movements of the orcas this year for clues.
“Right now we are seeing unprecedented changes in the distribution of Southern Resident killer whales,” Enticknap said. “There have been some changes in the distribution of the Southern Residents in recent years, and this year it’s drastically different.”
Garrett of Orca Network said before their disappearance from the Salish Sea, two Southern Resident calves were documented, called L124 of L pod and J56 of J pod.
That brings the struggling whale population to 76.
The Southern Resident orcas were listed as endangered in 2005, when the population was at 88. Since then, efforts to help the population recover have failed.
Experts at federal and state agencies as well as research nonprofits have said for years that a lack of salmon to eat combined with noise and chemical pollution in the water are threatening the species’ survival.
The three-fold problem is that chinook salmon populations in some places are also declining, noise from boat traffic in the Salish Sea interferes with the whales’ ability to hunt the remaining fish using echolocation, and as the whales lose weight pollutants locked up in their blubber can enter their bloodstreams and cause health problems.
The rest of the region’s whales, which don’t rely on salmon for food, are faring better, from the seal-eating transient orca whales that are thriving to gray and humpback whales that are making an apparent comeback.