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