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Annual Census for Southern Resident Orcas Puts Population at Only 73 Orcas

K21 Cappuccino - Hysazu Photography | Sara Shimazu
K21 Cappuccino - Hysazu Photography | Sara Shimazu

The Center for Whale Research has released the results of its annual census for the Southern Resident orca population, which sadly has dropped back to an historic low of just 73 orcas remaining.  Despite celebrating two new births in the past year, including the first new calf seen in K pod since 2011, the Center also recorded three deaths in the population: Cappuccino (K21), Ripple (K44), and Solstice (L89). In addition, earlier this year the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife listed 13 individuals as “vulnerable” in the population. 

The Southern Resident orcas are one of the best-studied whale populations in the world.  Due to their highly social nature, researchers can track family groups and observe births and deaths, leading to a near-exact annual census. 

The Center for Whale Research has been reporting the Orca Census since 1976, compiling one of the longest datasets for marine mammals in existence.  This long-term study has revealed trends in the Southern Resident population of declines and growth, linked to major threats like the abundance of salmon, the orcas’ main food source, chemical contamination, and noise & physical disturbance. 

 Because the orcas are so family-oriented, the Center determines an individual orca is deceased if they are not sighted in a certain number of encounters with that orca’s family group.  All three deaths since July 2021 were documented using this method, though two deaths are particularly concerning this year.   

Hysazu Photography | Sara Shimazu
Hysazu Photography | Sara Shimazu

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Cappuccino (K21), a male orca born in 1986, was last seen severely emaciated and separated from his family group.  In June 2022, a dead male orca was reported entangled in fishing gear far off the Oregon Coast.   With limited photographs of the orca and no biological samples, it is impossible to know if the entangled orca was a Southern Resident.  However, researchers with CWR know that K pod had been in the area at the time, and the orcas was the size of a juvenile Southern Resident. 

When Ripple (K44) was not seen with his family in later sightings, the CWR suspected he may have been the entangled whale.  Sadly, without more information on either of these deaths, we will never know exactly why these orcas died. 

While accidental entanglements in fixed fishing gear is a significant threat to large whales off the West Coast, especially humpbacks and gray whales, orcas are rarely entangled in that type of gear.  Whether or not this was a singular tragic incident or a new danger for the imperiled Southern Residents remains to be seen. 

WDC is working with state and federal agencies to reduce the risk of entanglement to whales in the Pacific and will be participating in the newly formed Oregon Entanglement Advisory Council. 

 Three deaths in a small population is a significant loss for the Southern Residents – for those who know and love the community and work on their recovery, and for the orcas themselves.  But the silver lining is two new calves who appear to be healthy and thriving, including the brand-new calf in K pod. 

With 73 orcas, the Southern Resident community is once again at its lowest abundance since the census began, and well below the abundance of 89 orcas when they were first listed as endangered. 

Actions to reverse their decline and address the threats to the community have increased in recent years: the steps outlined by the Washington Task Force continue to move forward, Oregon is taking more action, California is exploring unique solutions to salmon recovery, and we are closer than we’ve ever been to removing dams on the Snake River.  Recovery can move excruciatingly slowly, but we are hopeful that the upcoming year will continue to see progress for these orcas, and that this census brings renewed urgency to decision-makers. 

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