A female adult Southern resident killer whale and her three-and-a-half-year-old calf are rapidly declining in health in what appears to be a troubling situation for the creatures.
Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States recently released photos taken by a drone that show the adult known as J17 had deteriorated in health since she was assessed last fall.
Her daughter, J53, has also declined in condition, said an update on the administration’s website.
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Joe Gaydos with the SeaDoc Society out of the University of California, Davis, said it is a troubling development, given the death last year of a four-year-old orca known as J50.
“It’s a scary thing to happen on the tails of what happened last year to J50 and actually J17 was looking thin last fall as well, and really didn’t bounce back over the winter,” he said.
“It’s a sign when you get multiple animals…you got to do better.”
The total population of Southern resident killer whales is 75.
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The adult is showing the condition known as “peanut-head,” which indicates a significant loss of fat, or blubber, around the head, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
This condition of the killer whales is a call to action, Gaydos said.
“The possibility is real that we could lose her,” he said.
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“I always tell people the best time to plant a tree was 10 or 20 years ago and the next best time is today. And so it would be great if we were taking stronger actions on chinook and vessel noise and vessel traffic 10 years ago, but we haven’t so now is the time to act and I don’t think it’s too late.”
Earlier this month, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced sweeping new rules to protect southern resident killer whales off British Columbia’s coast, including requiring ships to stay 400 metres away from the whales and closing some salmon fisheries.
A statement from the office of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans called the deteriorating health of southern resident killer whales “concerning.”
“We are working closely with NOAA to share information and monitor the whales where possible, ensuring that monitoring activities do not stress the whales. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is not planning any interventions at this time,” it said.
Protecting and recovering the whales will require a long-term commitment from all orders of government, as well their many partners, it said.
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The Department of Fisheries and Oceans also said it’s implementing initiatives to support habitat protection and restoration of chinook salmon.
Gaydos said one of the reasons the females are the most affected, especially in the case of J17, could have to do with pregnancy and lactation. Lactation is a huge drain on females in any species, he said.
“Especially in marine mammals…about half of that milk is fat. So it takes the mama a lot of energy to feed that baby,” Gaydos said.
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“Imagine yourself as J17, you have a baby, you have to produce a lot of milk, a lot of energy to feed that baby, salmon are scarce and then once the baby gets weaned and eating fish on her own if there’s not a lot of fish to fatten back up on you’re kind of in this negative energy balance…That’s what could be going on with her.
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“(But) we don’t know for certain what’s going on.”
The orca, Gaydos said, is getting to the end of her reproductive lifespan, but in killer whales — as with humans and elephants — the females stick around even after they can’t have babies and play an important role in raising the group.
J17 has two daughters, one son, and two grandchildren in her group, he said.
“She still helps take care of them, helps them find food,” Gaydos said. “So, losing her could not just be a detriment to herself, but also to these other animals in her group.”
The next step in the process is that scientists at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center will collect feces, breath and scraps of the whales’ prey when possible, he said.
The statement on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website said such samples help understand the whales’ diet, potential pregnancies, and exposure to pathogens, adding researchers believe that a variety of factors, including malnutrition, disease, and disturbance are impacting the population’s recovery.