By Pete Thomas
The critically endangered Southern Resident killer whale population suffered another devastating loss this week, as the body of a popular male orca was discovered floating near Vancouver, Canada.
According to CBC, the carcass was spotted late Tuesday. The mammal was towed to shore Wednesday by Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which performed a necropsy.
The Center for Whale Research later confirmed that the dead killer whale is an 18-year-old from J Pod, cataloged as J34 and nicknamed Doublestuf.
“Our hearts go out to his mom and brother and entire clan,” Howard Garrett, who runs the Orca Network, wrote on Facebook.
J Pod is one of three Southern Resident pods struggling to maintain viable populations amid dwindling salmon runs off the Pacific Northwest. (King salmon represents the chief prey source for the killer whales.)
J34 becomes the fifth member of J Pod to have died this year, reducing the pod’s number to 25. (K Pod has 19 animals, and L Pod has 35. The overall Southern Resident population is just 79.)
The cause of J34’s death is not known, but he was reported to have appeared noticeably thin during recent sightings. Also, the necropsy revealed signs of physical injury.
The cause of death for the four other J Pod members was not determined because bodies were not recovered – the animals simply vanished.
But it appears as through Southern Residents as a whole are suffering from a slow starvation, thanks to dams and other development projects that have impacted salmon runs.
“[The orcas] go through periodic bouts of nutritional deficiency," Garrett told KOMO. "There's just not enough of the Chinook salmon and the Coho Chum salmon, which are basically all they will eat."
The death of J34 has saddened those within the regional whale-watching industry, but it’s likely also to have created a void among the orcas themselves.
Said Heather MacIntyre, a captain and naturalist for Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching on San Juan Island:
“Another death in an already fragile population of endangered Southern Resident orcas is a tough blow. Selfishly, we all want to speak of our encounters and experiences with these unique individuals, but the real loss of this iconic orca will be felt by his family.
“He and his maturing brother were incredibly close. His loss with no doubt be felt. You wonder what it's going to take for our American and Canadian governments to protect these waters, and its inhabitants.
“Our orcas keep dying, and yet we see no policy changes when it comes to regulation on salmon fisheries, tanker/deep sea traffic, or farm-raised salmon fisheries. It’s imperative that we all remain positive, and continue in our efforts to bring about change. The future depends on our ability to remain vigilant in hope for a brighter future.”