Orca calf death prompts call for action

KING 5's Alison Morrow reports.

The death of yet another Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) calf has prompted whale activists to plan a protest outside Sen. Patty Murray's office next Friday. They are demanding drastic action - and soon.

A picture of Sonic, or J52, getting a kiss from his mom was recently posted by the Center for Whale Research. It was a happier, healthier time for the orca calf. A little over a year later, earlier this month, researchers with SR3 spotted Sonic from a drone. He had a syndrome called "peanut head," showing severe malnutrition.

"When it's that visible, it's really bad.  He's very, very thin. We were concerned as were other groups that collaborate with us that this was a very bad sign," explained SR3 Executive Director Lesanna Lahner.

Dr. Lahner says they weren't surprised to learn the whale disappeared soon after.

Sonic was part of the 2015 baby boom. Elation over six new calves gave hope the endangered whales might have a chance at recovery. But even then, experts were concerned.

"These whales were having calves, but they were still very thin. That's not a good sign when a thin animal has a calf. It puts an extra strain on them," Dr. Lahner said.

Now, half of the baby boom calves are dead.

"The baby boom is over," said Orca Network Director Howard Garrett.

There have been eight Southern Resident deaths in the last 16 months. One of the most famous, Granny, the oldest of the group, died last year.

"Her passing, that might have been normal because she was so old. But we've seen breeding age females dying. We've seen calves dying. We don't want to see that in a population we're trying to recover," Dr. Lahner said. "We're very concerned this population is headed in the wrong direction and is at risk of extinction instead of recovery."

There are only 76 southern resident orcas left in the wild. Rounded up for shipment to theme parks in 1970, the whales have never recovered.

Southern Residents only eat fish and mainly Chinook salmon, which are now also protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Garrett and many others believe taking down the Snake River dams must be considered immediately. Some estimate the habitat could return hundreds of thousands, if not a million, more chinook to the Pacific. It's a call for action that's drawn opposition, not just from dam supporters but also from orca advocates, who say boat noise and other issues are more important.

"I know there are many other fixes," Garrett said. "All of those are very important, but this dam removal would be a dramatic measurable and short-term increase in the number of salmon."

The demonstration in honor of Sonic outside Sen. Murray's office will go from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m on October 6.  The address is 915 2nd Ave, Seattle, WA 98104.

Get more information about the Memorial Service for J52 - Sonic on Facebook.

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