As many as three Southern Resident killer whales are pregnant within the local J-pod, according to researchers.
Because of the pregnancies, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries and their partners are asking recreational boaters to give the orcas extra space. Quieter waters, according to researchers, are important as orcas in the finals months of gestation increase their food consumption.
"We've got many people looking at the science to understand where we can continue to improve the odds for this population,” said Kelly Susewind, WDFW director. "Now that we've learned of multiple pregnancies among the Southern Residents and the impact that boats can have on new mothers, we really need everyone to follow "Be Whale Wise" regulations in support of these endangered whales’ survival.”
Washington state law requires boats to remain at least 300 yards from Southern Resident orcas and at least 400 yards out of their path behind them. Vessels within a half nautical mile of Southern Resident orcas must also reduce their speed to seven knots.
The population of the endangered orcas sits at 74, following the presumed death of an orca in K-pod in July.
Howard Garrett with the Orca Network says we need to be "cautiously optimistic because they are pregnant, but they can lose [the calves] at any time. It really does amount to their food intake - their consistent diet."
A study found that the endangered orcas in the region typically feed almost exclusively on Chinook salmon in the inland waters during the summer months. Most of that salmon comes from Canada’s Fraser River.
The Southern Resident population has struggled to grow amid food shortages changing environmental conditions. The orcas have in recent years been at their lowest numbers since the 1970s.
Garrett says the orcas are shifting their use of their habitat and foraging patterns.
"It's kind of a mystery, but they do seem to be finding enough food," he said. "They are in generally good condition."