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Ecology and salmon related articles

A Third Baby Orca and
Its Family are Headed This Way

by Joel Connelly
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 26, 2015

Orcas eat Chinook salmon. They are picky eaters and will not feed off the millions of sockeye salmon
that swim through the Salish Sea en route to the Fraser River in British Columbia.

A third baby orca whale, christened L-94, has been spotted off the Washington coast. A third baby orca has been born this winter into the endangered southern resident killer whale population, bringing to 80 the number of orcas "resident" much of the year in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and inland waters of the Salish Sea.

The baby, christened L-121, was initially spotted off Cape Lookout -- one of the great beauty spots of the Oregon Coast -- with L-pod since moving north and spotted off Westport on the Washington Coast.

"The calf looked very energetic," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported from a research vessel following the pod.

And, added Shari Tarantino of the Orca Conservancy, "The other two are looking great. If one (baby) had not died, we would have four."

Newborn J51 with her mother J19 off San Juan Island. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, The Center for Whale Research. Newborn J51 with her mother J19 off San Juan Island, the second baby orca of the season. (Photo: Dave Ellifrit, The Center for Whale Research) The L-pod is the largest of three pods that make up the southern resident population.

Both of the previous babies are in the J-pod, which now numbers 26 orcas. The K-pod has 19 whales. With the latest birth, there are now 35 orcas in L-pod.

The orcas are listed under the Endangered Species Act, largely due to the decline of their food source.

Orcas eat Chinook salmon. They are picky eaters and will not feed off the millions of sockeye salmon that swim through the Salish Sea en route to the Fraser River in British Columbia.

The big marine mammals have become conservation icons in the 49 years since marine parks began capturing them. Capture parties did not like interference or scrutiny and once tried to capsize a boat carrying KING-TV investigative reporter Don McGaffin.

The tide turned in 1976 when Sea World used airplanes, power boats and underwater explosives to trap and capture six orcas in Budd Inlet off Olympia.

The capture of the "Budd Inlet Six" took place literally in front of Secretary of State Ralph Munro, who was sailing in the inlet. And it happened while The Evergreen State College was hosting a first-ever International Orca Symposium.

The whales were freed. They've been treated with respect since. Even the British Columbia government, then (and now) in the pocket of the timber industry, was forced to create an ecological reserve and park at the mouth of Robson Bight on northern Vancouver Island.

Robson Bight is a center of habitat for the northern resident population, which feed on salmon and rub on rocks in the shallow bay at the mouth of the Tsitika River.

The L-pod seems headed our way. The second baby orca, J-51, was spotted two weeks ago in Haro Strait, which forms the boundary between the U.S. San Juan Islands, the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

The islands have famous whale-watching spots, such as the channel between San Juan and Speiden islands -- traversed by the Washington State Ferries traveling between Anacortes and Sidney, B.C. -- as well as Turn Point on Stuart Island, which faces out onto Haro Strait. Turn Point is part of the new San Juan Islands National Monument.

The main B.C. Ferries route, between the mainland and Vancouver Island, goes through Active Pass, where orcas are frequently seen.

In addition to a shortage of Chinook salmon, one other issue clouds the future of the southern resident population.

The big Houston-based pipeline firm Kinder Morgan proposes to triple the capacity of the TransMountain Pipeline, which carries oil from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C., just east of Vancouver. The enlarged pipeline would have a greater capacity than the controversial Keystone XL pipeline in the Midwest.

If the pipeline project goes through -- it faces fierce resistance in British Columbia -- it would send 30 oil tankers a month through Haro Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The Gulf Islands are the location of a new Canadian national park. The San Juans are the site of both the new national monument and the San Juan Island National Historical Park. The tankers would pass through waters used by both the orcas and the Fraser River's sockeye salmon runs.

The Canadian government has repeatedly promised a "world class" marine safety and spill response capacity as a precondition to the pipeline. But the government of Prime Minster Stephen Harper is bent on making Canada a global petro power: It wants to export the Alberta oil.

A recent Canadian government study found that, at present, Canada is totally unprepared to deal with an oil spill off any of its coasts or in the St. Lawrence River.

A joke among conservationists in the "Great White North" is that the chief resource currently available to sop up spilled oil are the press releases promising a "world class" response.

Related Sites:
As the Chinook Go, So Go the Orcas by Peggy Andersen, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4/5/6
Survival of Endangered Orcas in the Salish Sea Depends on Restoring Chinook by Howard Garrett, Bellingham Herald, 2/27/15 Not Having Enough Salmon Stresses Killer Whales by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 6/8/12
U.S./Canada Science Evaluates Effects of Salmon Fisheries on ESA-Listed Killer Whales by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 5/4/12

Joel Connelly
A Third Baby Orca and Its Family are Headed This Way
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 26, 2015

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