SEATTLE -- An endangered species of killer whale, a normally common sight around this time, is missing from the Salish Sea, according to the Orca Behavior Institute.
Southern Resident Orcas typically inhabit the waters of the state of Washington and British Columbia during spring and summer, but experts say the orcas haven’t been seen for two months. They say their disappearance could be tied to a dwindling food supply.
“The lack of Southern Residents in the Salish Sea for the entirety of June reflects a fundamental shift in the behavior of this population,” said Michael Weiss, a scientist with the Center for Whale Research. “Dramatic changes in the distribution of Chinook salmon, particularly due to the ongoing decline of Fraser River stocks, have increasingly forced these whales to abandon an area that was once their core habitat.”
It's suspected the J-, K-, and L-Pods are in the outer coast searching for a reliable source of food. Experts say this new behavior is symptomatic of a drastic change in their habitat.
“The absence of Southern Residents tells us that the ecosystem is out of balance,” Said Whitney Neugebauer, the director of Whale Scout. “We should be listening and responding appropriately. If the whales can’t make a living in our inland waters, we, too, are in trouble.”
The Lummi Nation has long advocated for environmental preservation and recently formed a committee to study what impact human activity is having on the orca population. A tribe elder lamented the news and called for work towards a healthier ecosystem.
"If qwe ‘lhol mechen are not spending as much time as usual in the Salish Sea, it’s because they are looking for healthier waters," Raynell Morris said. "They’re speaking to us. If we don’t take care of our home, where will we go? What happens to them, happens to us.”
Meanwhile, Bigg’s orcas, who prey on mammals as opposed to salmon like Resident Orcas, have flourished in the Salish Sea and can be seen in record number.
“Unless immediate, dramatic action is taken to recover these vital salmon populations, this won't be the last June without Southern Residents in our waters,” said Weiss.