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Orcas’ brief visit to Salish Sea bookended by causes of celebration, mourning

Aug. 4, 2021 Updated Wed., Aug. 4, 2021 at 4:32 p.m.

By Kimberly Cauvel Tribune News Service

Following an unprecedented absence from the Salish Sea, the region’s endangered Southern Resident orcas visited their “summer home” briefly last week.

The visit followed the happy news that Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirmed a calf born in February is a female — which could boost the Southern Resident population if she reproduces — and came ahead of NOAA Fisheries’ expansion this week of critical habitat for the imperiled whales.

The visit also brought with it bad news: One of the whales, K21, or Cappuccino, was seen in poor health and has since been presumed dead.

The Southern Resident orca population includes three family groups called J, K and L pods. According to the nonprofit Orca Network, all three pods were seen near San Juan Island on July 27, before heading back toward coastal waters the next day.

“The whale community was ecstatic to see, hear, or just know that all three pods of Southern Resident orcas had returned at long last, after 108 days away at sea, to Haro Strait off San Juan Island,” the Orca Network said on its Facebook page.

The excitement ebbed Wednesday, July 28, when K21 was seen separated from its pod, struggling to swim and appearing unhealthy. The Orca Network said the whale, a male born in 1986, was emaciated and its dorsal fin was collapsed.

“It was shocking and terribly sad to see him that way … a sure sign he was near death,” the organization’s Facebook post states.

Monika Wieland Shields of the Orca Behavior Institute said in a news release that K21 was one of the easiest Southern Residents to identify because of a check mark-shaped light patch on his once-mighty dorsal fin. While difficult to lose a star whale from a struggling population, Wieland Shields said the average life expectancy of a male orca is about 30 years, so K21 was past its prime.

The loss of K21 brings the population to 74 whales. For those whales, NOAA Fisheries filed Monday a new rule expanding critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act to include nearly 16,000 square miles of West Coast waters along Washington, Oregon and northern California.

NOAA Fisheries originally designated about 2,560 square miles of the Salish Sea as critical habitat for the whales in 2006.

The federal agency has been working to expand the critical habitat since determining in 2015, in response to a petition the Center for Biological Diversity filed under the Endangered Species Act, that a revision was warranted.

The newly-designated critical habitat includes water ranging from 6.1 to 200 meters deep that contains the same essential features identified as critical to the whales in the Salish Sea, according to a NOAA Fisheries news release. Those features include water quality, the presence of prey species, and conditions for migration, resting and foraging.

According to NOAA Fisheries, while expanding the critical habitat adds a layer of protection for the whales, increasing the number of salmon available for the orcas to eat is most critical for the species’ recovery.

The international ocean advocacy organization Oceana shares that view.

“While this action helps ensure the orcas’ ocean home will be protected, more action is urgently needed to restore wild salmon populations the orcas depend on,” Oceana Senior Scientist Ben Enticknap said in a news release. “Orca and salmon recovery go hand-in-hand.”

Orca researchers with the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology and area nonprofits have said the whales’ relative absence from the Salish Sea this year is likely connected to an absence of Fraser River fish.

Usually, the orcas are seen frequently within the Salish Sea between May and September. This year, before the single-day sighting on July 27, K pod was last seen on July 1, while J pod hadn’t been seen since April, and L pod not since February.

The whales have instead been documented most often near what’s called Swiftsure Bank off Vancouver Island — a potentially better location for hunting salmon this year.

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