Orca L92, now presumed dead, off San Juan Island in 2015
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Orca L92, now presumed dead, off San Juan Island in 2015
Credit: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

After whale goes missing, endangered orca population drops to 30-year low

An endangered killer whale has gone missing and is presumed dead, but it's not the only orca in trouble in Washington waters.

Eight local orcas have died in just the past two years.

The resident killer whale, a 23-year-old male known as L-92 or "Crewser," had not been seen since November. The whale failed to return from the ocean to Puget Sound with the rest of its pod last week.

It had been nearly two months since any of the "southern resident" killer whales had been seen in the inland waters of Washington and British Columbia.

"Our best guess is that there's just no food for them to come into town," Kelly Iriye with the Center for Whale Research said. "So they're out looking for more options of being able to eat elsewhere."

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The suspected death brings the local population of orcas down to a new low. Only 75 orcas are left.

Researchers say the dead orcas whose bodies were found were emaciated: There's not enough chinook salmon to go around anymore. The once-prolific salmon runs from the Fraser River, just north of the Washington-British Columbia border, and from various rivers in Puget Sound have declined.

When the orcas start to use their reserves of blubber, PCBs and other toxic pollution stored in the fat get released into their blood streams.

A crew with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor also spotted an emaciated three-year-old orca last week. The young whale known as J-50 had so little blubber left that its head was shaped like a peanut.

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"The skin kind of takes the shape of the skull bone, and that's just not a good sign," Iriye said. "It means that they're starving."

In March, Governor Jay Inslee created task forces and ordered some emergency actions aimed at helping the endangered population of orcas bounce back.

The population was listed as "endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2005, a move that is supposed to lead to species recovery. Despite that official protection, the resident orca population has dropped from 88 to 75 since then.