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Southern Resident orca L92 missing as community returns to the Salish Sea

We are very sad to share news announced today by the Center for Whale Research – L92 (Crewser), a 23-year-old male orca from the critically endangered Southern Resident population, is missing and presumed dead.  This unique community of orcas now has just 75 individuals remaining.

The Southern Residents are highly social and remain in family groups throughout their lives, so a sighting of a matriline with a missing orca is a reliable sign that the individual has died.  After a historically late return to their traditional summer feeding grounds in the Salish Sea, and the first May on record with no sightings of the Southern Residents in their core summer habitat, the entire population has yet to be accounted for. 

The Southern Resident population consists of three pods (J, K, and L); J pod tends to be the most “Resident” group, staying in or around the Salish Sea throughout the year.  K and L pods travel as far south as Monterey Bay, California in the winter months in search of salmon returning to California and Pacific Northwest rivers.  The Center for Whale Research (CWR), which maintains the annual Orca Census, typically sees all the whales return to the Salish Sea, a transboundary body of water between Washington State and British Columbia, Canada, in the late spring and summer, and completes a total population count by July 1st.  Only J pod and some matrilines of L pod have been confirmed in the Salish Sea so far this year.  K pod and other L pod matrilines are still absent, and any additional losses from the small population are as yet unknown.  In 2017, CWR could not complete their population count on schedule because the orcas were largely absent from the area.

Research has established that the primary source of salmon for Southern Residents during the spring and summer is Canada’s Fraser River, with smaller amounts from various watersheds in Puget Sound.  Their diet during the winter and early spring is more varied as they forage on more widely dispersed salmon stocks from multiple rivers in California and the Pacific Northwest.  2017 was a record-low year for salmon returns to the Fraser River, and for Southern Resident orca sightings in the summer months.  Counts of returning salmon continue to be low in 2018, and the threat of another El Niño event is worrisome for salmon currently out at sea.

Both Canada and Washington State have recognized the crisis condition of the Southern Resident orca population.  Canada is dedicating millions of dollars to habitat restoration projects in the Fraser River, and Washington has developed an Orca Recovery Task Force to develop state-based actions to help orcas and salmon.

This is very sad news as we celebrate Orca Month, and WDC and our partners remain concerned that more losses will be counted as the Southern Residents return to the Salish Sea in search of their usual summer salmon.  We hope that all 75 remaining orcas are counted soon, and that the near-term actions being implemented by Canada and Washington State help provide these orcas with much-needed salmon immediately.

Learn more about the Southern Resident orcas and how restoring watersheds helps salmon and orcas.

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