Written by Simon Pidcock
A Cautious Welcome to Four New Calves in the Southern Resident Community
What a winter it has been for the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. Since late December there has been four new calves born to bring the population to 81 family members. J Pod, K Pod and L pod haven’t had a calf survive since 2012 when J49 “Notch” was born. There is now renewed hope that some of these new calves born in the last few months will make it through the critical first year of life. Killer whale calves have an extremely high mortality rate in the first year of life. The chance of survival in the first year is approximately 50/50. So researchers and myself are cautiously optimistic for the new calves.
The calves as well as the rest of their family and community have two great hurdles to overcome to survive in the Salish Sea. The first being lack of food and the second being toxins. The SRKW’s are extremely picky eaters, 95% of their diet is Chinook salmon. This is making it hard for them to find enough to eat, as the Chinook salmon stocks are very depleted compared to the rest of the salmon species in our waters. The Southern Residents are some of the most toxic mammals in the world due to feeding fairly high up on the food chain and living within the city limits of three major cities. High levels of PBDE’s or fire retardant chemicals are found in the fatty tissue of these whales. This is the same place where the females produce their protein rich milk that they nurse their young with up to 18 months. So the females are effectively cleansing their own bodies and passing on all of these toxins to their young through nursing.
The good news is that births in the SRKW population are directly proportionate to due the abundance of Chinook salmon in our waters. So in other words if we have a good salmon year we see an increase in births. So if we can help bring back the Chinook stocks these whales will thrive again and these new births will become a regular occurrence and the mortality rate will go down. With the amount of press these new little ones are receiving brings renewed interest in making a difference and ensuring that they are finding enough food to eat. It is up to us to make a difference so we don’t lose these iconic animals for good. In next month’s article I will speak to how each one of us who calls the Salish Sea watershed our home can make a difference.