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Despite recent births, 'a long way to go' to save Southern Resident orcas

Even with recent births, Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb worries for the future of local orcas.

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — There has been a flood of orca news lately – with several calves born to the endangered Southern Resident population in recent months. But activists and state officials agree – we have a long way to go to save the orcas.

J35 gave birth to a calf in September 2020, followed by another born to J41 later that month. Earlier in February, researchers announced L86 “Surprise” had been spotted with a new calf.  

But the births were tempered with news that J46, who had been identified as pregnant, had apparently lost her calf. That brings the total number of Southern Residents in the wild to 75.

Even with those births, Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb worries for their future.

“We’re not on the right trajectory, and we won’t get there for another 10-20 years, even if nobody dies,” Balcomb said. “Even if we do everything we can."

About 40% of Southern Resident calves don't live past a year. The whales face a variety of threats when in Puget Sound: a dwindling food supply of Chinook salmon, vessel noise that complicates their hunting, and bio-accumulating pollutants in the water.

To address the food supply issue, Balcomb’s CWR bought a home on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula late last year. Now dubbed the “Big Salmon Ranch,” they were drawn by the hundreds of feet of riverfront, which the group will protect as salmon spawning habitat.

“We bought it for the whales,” Balcomb said. “We bought it for J Pod. Far as I’m concerned, when I move on, it’s theirs.”

Though it’s just a small section of the long river, he hopes it will help make an impact. But he doesn’t expect his project to solve the orcas' food crisis, and is calling on the state of Washington to take more aggressive action, like breaching the Snake River dams.

"What has to be is a food supply available to them year round, wherever they’re travelling, so that they don’t have these momentary starvations that interfere with their reproduction or successful pregnancy,” Balcomb said.

He expressed frustration with what some activists see as a lack of motion from the state after Governor Inslee commissioned the Southern Residents task force. The working group published their list of recommendations here, though not all have been implemented.

Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) Executive Director Laura Blackmore agrees we are not doing enough to save the Southern Resident orcas. 

“I don’t think so,” Blackmore said. “I think we’re making a really good effort. This state has a lot to be proud of. We have a governor that’s leading us. We have state agencies that are focused on this, we have the non-profit community, the tribes, the private sector, the boating community. We have lots and lots of people working really, really hard. We still have a long way to go.”

PSP, a state agency, pointed to recent successes though – including dams removed on the Pilchuck and Middle Fork Nooksack Rivers.

Though there is the elephant in the room – four large dams on the Snake River, historically one of the most salmon-rich waterways in the Northwest. New calls have arisen to remove the dams, including a surprising proposal from an Idaho Republican.

Blackmore couldn’t discuss the Snake River because it falls outside PSP’s Puget Sound purview, but said the state needs to take big, radical action to save the whales.

“Yes, we have to think transformatively,” Blackmore said. “Especially with the new administration in Washington D.C., we should be thinking that way. We should be thinking about things like retrofitting all the roads, we should be thinking about things like working with Burlington-Northern Santa Fe railroad to either move their tracks off the Eastern edge of Puget Sound, or fix all the fish passage barrier or landslide risks that accrue from those tracks.

"We should be working with wastewater treatment plants in Puget Sound to help them remove nutrients from our wastewater, and also prevent overflows like we’ve had recently, because all of that affects the salmon food web.”

Balcomb hopes for systemic change, before the Southern Resident orcas are gone forever. He hopes his Elwha project helps.

“I feel privileged and honored that the whales have chosen me to be their agent on this,” Balcomb said. “I love the whales. I feel like I’m one of them. Right now, the real estate laws won’t let them buy it, but it will let a non-profit on their behalf.”