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The last generation of southern resident killer whales?

SAN JUAN ISLAND, Wash. -- "If we want to keep them around, we’ve gotta do something fast," said Ken Balcomb, a leading researcher on the southern resident killer whales.

It’s a warning we’ve heard before.

"We are in critical danger of losing these orcas all together," Balcomb had told Q13 News five years ago when it put a spotlight on this 'Species on the Brink' of extinction.

"Could it happen? That’s the wrong question," Orca Relief's Mark Anderson said at the time. "Is it happening? It’s happening right now. Could we stop it? Maybe."

Since these interviews in 2013, the southern resident population is down seven more whales.

It's a problem that’s plagued it for much longer.

"I’ve been telling this story for 20 years," Balcomb said.

The story is only getting worse. For the third year in a row, the pods don’t have a single healthy calf.

"The southern residents are not a very healthy population right now," said Lynne Barre, who studies marine mammals for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

She believes these orcas face three main threats; the same three threats they’ve been talking about for years.

Those are a shortage of its main prey, Chinook salmon; pollution in the water; and boat noise.

"In your opinion, is there one that’s bigger than the rest?" Q13 News correspondent Simone Del Rosario asked Barre.

"All the threats are combined," she replied.

Without abundant salmon, the southern residents are starving. When they can’t eat, they access their fat storage, which is full of contaminants. And with boat noise, they have a harder time using echolocation to find what little salmon there is.

"Would you agree that it’s these three?" Del Rosario asked Balcomb, who's spent 42 years studying the southern residents.

"No, I disagree," he said. "It’s a divide and conquer strategy. First of all, in biology, there’s a principle of parsimony."

That's the idea that the most acceptable solution is the simplest.

"You can add these other things, but the simplest is the food," Balcomb added. "And then triage, what are you going to treat first? The food. That’s the one that’s going to solve the problem."

"Our recovery program has always been a comprehensive one and we want to go after all the threats," Barre insisted.

The problem is that the population is not recovering. Since being listed as endangered in 2005, the population has gone down 15 percent. The steps that have been taken so far, including increased salmon hatcheries, voluntary no-go zones and habitat restoration, have not resulted in more whales.

While experts don’t always agree on the approach, they do agree that something needs to be done.

"If we don’t save the orca, we will have let down future generations," said Stephanie Solien of Puget Sound Partnership.

Solien co-chairs Gov. Jay Inslee’s task force to save the southern residents. In March, the governor signed the executive order to form the group, which will provide a list of recommended actions this fall.

"Do I wish that there had been more political will and more action taken 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago?" Solien asked. "Absolutely I do. And there were a lot of people sending those messages."

For the southern residents, that's the issue. For years, those in power did not listen and now the population is at a crisis.

This story is part of a Q13 News series, "The Last Generation?"