California K pod sighting, January 2007

The Center for Whale Research News Release:
January 30, 2007

Contact info:
The Center for Whale Research
Ken Balcomb, Director
(360) 378-5835
Email


For additional information, contact:
Kelley Balcomb-Bartok
communication officer
The Center for Whale Research
(360) 378-5835
email: webmaster@whaleresearch.com

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For Immediate Release:
Washington Killer Whales sighted off San Francisco

Famous northwest whales make trek to the Golden State
News © 2006 Center for Whale Research On January 24, 2007 a pod of “Endangered” Pacific Northwest Killer Whales was sighted along the coast of California just off San Francisco. The whales made an appearance near the W Buoy at approximately 1 p.m. and were later identified as members of the K-pod, as they’re commonly referred to by whale researchers in Washington State.

Following the chance encounter, photos were provided by California whale researchers to experts at the Center for Whale Research, based in Friday Harbor, Washington. The Center for Whale Research has maintained a continuous and comprehensive photo-identification study of the Pacific Northwest Killer whale pods for 30 years.

In several photos taken during the encounter scientists were able to positively identify an individual female known to researchers as K20, traveling with her 3 year-old offspring, K38, born in 2004. Researchers believe that members of the L-pod were also likely to be in the vicinity based on observer reports from just a little over a week earlier when killer whales were sighted in Half Moon Bay.

The whales are members of two out of three pods of much loved and celebrated whales referred to as the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population. In the Pacific Northwest, these are the very same whales that thrill whale-watchers and coastal residents every summer with their predictable arrival following vast schools of salmon enroute to northwest rivers to spawn.

© Center for Whale Research
January 24, 2007 photo of K20 near San Francisco, CA with her calf K38, born 2004.

© 2006 Center for Whale Research
September 2, 2006 photo of K20 in the San Juan Islands with her K38.

In recent years, reports of Pacific Northwest pods traveling to the California coast during the winter months have been on the increase. These forays into California waters are directly related to their search for salmon, the mainstay of their diet. As salmon stocks dwindle in various parts of their historic range — and fisheries managers fret over conflicts of dividing the harvest and restoring threatened and endangered populations of these fish — the whales have extended their travels to include coastal Oregon and California.

“How do we bring about the recovery of a prey species (salmon) and its natural predator species (killer whales) at the same time?” asks Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research. “It seems a conundrum.”

The SRKW population has declined precipitously in the recent decade, and five more went “missing” in late 2006 just before leaving the Pacific Northwest for their winter journey. Winter is the season that scientists generally expect to have whales go missing, that are then logged as deaths.

In February 2006, NOAA Fisheries declared the SRKW’s “Endangered”, and now it is attempting to determine the habitat range that must be protected to ensure their survival.

“The coast of Central California is obviously within the SRKW habitat range” says Balcomb, “and the salmon stocks from the Sacramento and San Juaquin River systems are among their prey.” Fish scale sampling in other regions following predation by the whales has revealed that Chinook salmon are preferred, though other species are taken at times.

The recent forecast for harvest of Chinook salmon totaled about 600,000 south of Eureka, 30,000 north of Eureka to southern Oregon, and 300,000 from southern Oregon to the Canada border,” explains Balcomb. “That adds up to a lot of fish, and a lot of money for fishermen, but we must keep in mind that the SRKW’s need salmon, too. They are the ‘competition’, but they cannot be blamed for fish population declines. In the natural scheme of things they consume a small percentage of the available prey population, and then move on.”

According to Balcomb, the sighting and photo-documentation of SRKW’s off San Francisco demonstrates at least three important things: 1) SRKW seasonal habitat usage now regularly includes the coast of California; 2) it indicates the presence of significant numbers of Chinook salmon off the coast of California; and 3) the young mother photographed has successfully reared her calf for a third year, giving some hope that the SRKW population can increase again if there is enough food. “The whales are not pets,” says Balcomb, “but like pets, you cannot keep them if you don’t feed them.”

“These Famous Killer Whales are probably better known than any other marine mammal,” adds Balcomb, “and we are seeking the public’s help with sightings and photographs anywhere along the Pacific coast to better document their habitat range.”

In the coming months, prior to the SRKW’s return to the Pacific Northwest, experts from the Center for Whale Research will be traveling the coast of Oregon and northern California in search of the whales as they move north. To aid in their search, the Center for Whale Research is asking for the public’s help. Please report Killer Whale sightings by calling Orca Network toll-free: 1-(866)-ORCANET (672-2638).

For more information about the Pacific Northwest Killer Whales visit The Center for Whale Research.
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