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3 missing endangered southern resident orcas now presumed dead: researchers

3 missing southern resident orcas presumed dead
WATCH: Researchers say three orcas, who have not been seen in several months, are believed to have died. Jordan Armstrong explains what may have happened to the endangered animals.

The already diminished population of B.C.’s endangered southern resident killer whales (SRKW) has taken another hit.

The Washington state-based Center for Whale Research said Tuesday that three adult southern resident orcas are missing and now presumed dead.

That leaves the southern resident population at just 73.

WATCH: Southern resident Orcas late in returning from California

Southern resident Orcas late in returning from California
Southern resident Orcas late in returning from California

The whales, J17, K25 and L84, are each from one of the region’s three SRKW pods.

“It is right inline with the trajectory that has been predicted for several years,” said Howard Garrett, co-founder and board president of Orca Network on Whidbey Island, Wash.

“It’s very, very sad. These are known individuals. People care about them, we’ve gotten to know them over many, many years and we know their family lines … and now we’ll see them never again.”

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According to the Center for Whale Research, J17 is a 42-year-old matriarch from J-pod.

She was also the mother of orca J35, the whale that made international headlines when she carried her dead calf with her for 17 days.

READ MORE: Endangered southern resident orcas spotted off Vancouver Island after late return to region

Back in January, the centre had warned that J17 was one of two killer whales that appeared emaciated, with J17 displaying signs of “peanut head” — a misshapen head and neck associated with starvation.

K25, the other orca that the centre was concerned about, is now also presumed dead. The 28-year-old male was in his prime years, according to the centre, but had been displaying poor body conditions since the winter.

The centre also said it believes that 29-year-old male L84 has died. The orca has been missing all summer, according to the centre, which said the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has not sighted the whale along the west coast of Vancouver Island in any of its recent surveys.

WATCH: New concerns about southern resident killer whale

New concerns about southern resident killer whale
New concerns about southern resident killer whale

“We should prepare ourselves for more bad news, because we haven’t seen any of L-pod, which is about half of the southern residents,” said Garrett.

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The entire L-pod has not entered the Salish Sea this year, as it would characteristically do during the summer months.

READ MORE: Rare orca ‘superpod’ forms as search continues for J50, endangered whale many fear dead

The deaths are a blow to hopes that had grown in the wake of two calves being born to the SRKWs this year.

Researchers say there are many potential causes for the endangered population’s decline but that a lack of Chinook salmon — their primary source of food — is of particular concern.