killer whales
J50 and family (J16s), September 3, 2018 (photograph by Dave Ellifrit)

Three southern resident killer whales that are known to frequent BC’s Salish Sea have not returned this summer, and are presumed dead by researchers.

According to the Center for Whale Research, the three adult orcas likely died due to food scarcity, especially from a lack of Chinook salmon prey.

“We are saddened to report that three adult killer whales (orca) are missing and presumed dead as of July 1, 2019,” said the research center in a statement.

See also: Federal government increases protections for BC’s remaining killer whales

During the summer season, southern resident killer whales have historically returned to the waters near Vancouver Island.

However, due to a decline in prey populations, the marine mammals have been avoiding their usual habitats.

“Due to the scarcity of suitable Chinook salmon prey, this population of whales now rarely visit the core waters of its designated Critical Habitat: Puget Sound, Georgia Strait, and the inland reach of the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” said the Center for Whale Research.

J pod loses its matriarch

The three missing orcas that have been presumed dead are J17, K25, and L84, according to the Center for Whale Research.

J17 was a 42-year-old killer whale who was the matriarch of J pod and mother of Tahlequah (J35), the orca who made headlines for carrying her dead calf across the salish sea for 17 days last year.

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According to researchers, J17’s body was in poor condition as of last winter, likely due to stress. She is survived by two daughters, J35 and J53, and one son, J44.

Meanwhile, a 28-year-old adult male, K25, is also missing and presumed dead. The orca was in “the prime of his life,” according to the research center, but was found to be in poor health last winter. He is survived by two sisters and a brother, K20, K27, and K34, respectively.

The third and last missing whale, L84, is a 29-year-old adult male who has not been seen all summer. In fact, no members of L pod have returned to the Salish Sea at all this year.

Researchers believe that L84 was the last orca to die in a matriline of eleven whales.

As of July 1st, 2019, the known Southern Resident killer whale population totals 73.

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