April 13, 2016
Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced preliminary necropsy results for two stranded orcas found in British Columbia waters in late March. Sadly, both orcas were determined to be members of the critically endangered Southern Resident orca community, now with just 83 individuals left in the wild (an 84th member, Tokitae, is held in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium).
A male orca found on March 30th was confirmed as L95, Nigel, a 20-year old male recently tagged by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in their ongoing satellite tagging project, intended to provide more information on the winter movements of the Southern Residents. NMFS has suspended this study while they further investigate the cause of Nigel’s death. Nigel is the second adult Southern Resident lost since last summer – L27, Ophelia, an approximately 50-year-old female, went missing in fall 2015.
A female orca calf estimated at less than two weeks of age was found March 23rd; genetics have confirmed she was from the Southern Resident population, and further analysis will reveal which pod she was from. She was never observed or photographed alive, so it is still unknown who her family was. This young orca would have been the 11th calf born since December, 2014; of those calves, eight have survived so far. In January 2016, NMFS researchers observed new calf J55, and noted another J pod female swimming with a stillborn calf. J55 has since gone missing and is presumed to be deceased.
“The loss of a female calf is particularly heartbreaking” says Colleen Weiler, WDC’s Rekos Fellow for Orca Conservation. “In this matriarchal society, females are important not only for their ability to contribute to population growth (have babies), but are vital as pod leaders, and hold knowledge important to the survival of the whole community.”
Of the eight surviving “baby boom” calves, just two are confirmed to be female. Five are males, and the remaining unknown is suspected to be another male. This is a continuation of a male gender bias observed in the community, and does not bode well for future recovery.
Scarlet (J50), the first of the “baby boom” calves and one of just two females in the eight surviving babies (image credit: Center for Whale Research).