The Center for Whale Research announced this week that a grandmother in the L pod of the Southern Resident orca population is missing and most likely dead. The loss of matriarch L47 (“Marina”) marks the second Southern Resident orca death in the past year. These critically endangered orcas recently reached their lowest population level in 40 years, and although the cause of L47’s disappearance is unknown, the population faces multiple threats, including a severe shortage of salmon to eat, toxic contamination, and underwater noise and vessel disturbance.
“It is with great sadness that that we mourn the death of L47,” said Cindy Hansen, Education Coordinator with Orca Network, a member of the Orca Salmon Alliance. “The loss of a grandmother Southern Resident orca is devastating to the population. The grandmothers play an incredibly important role in the social structure, culture, and survival of their families. When I began my career with the Southern Residents, there were nine grandmothers and two great-grandmothers. Today, only three grandmothers remain. My heart goes out to L Pod, and the entire Southern Resident orca community, and I hope that we can take the necessary actions to help recover this population before it is too late.”
For the past several years, NOAA Fisheries has identified the Southern Resident orcas as a “Species in the Spotlight,” one of nine endangered species most at risk of extinction in the near future. Washington State’s Governor Inslee convened a Southern Resident Orca Task Force in 2018, dedicated to identifying “bold” solutions to the threats facing the beloved orcas and their primary prey, Chinook salmon. Despite federal and state recognition of the perilous struggle for existence that these whales face, the orcas continue to dwindle in number and decline. “As a matriarchal species, elder females help hunt for other members of the population and share food with their families. The loss of an older female is a tremendous loss of knowledge and leadership for the population. The Southern Residents and can live to be over 100 years old—decades beyond their reproductive years—the loss of an older female is especially concerning,” said Dr. D. Giles, Science and Research Director with Wild Orca, a member group of the Orca Salmon Alliance.
Marina gave birth to two daughters – L83 “Moonlight” and L94 “Muncher” in 1990 and 1995. A series of tragedies followed when she gave birth to four more calves from 2000 to 2008, and none of those four calves lived to their first birthday. In 2010, L115 “Mystic” was born, and he survived and is showing every sign of growing to be a strong and healthy whale. Marina became a grandmother in 2007 with the birth of Moonlight’s calf L110 “Midnight,” followed by Muncher’s calf L122 “Magic” in 2015. Sadly, Marina’s mother L21 “Ankh” died in 2008, but she had been a wonderful role model for her daughter, and Marina easily became the leader her family needed.
The Orca Salmon Alliance is made up of 17 member groups who work in tandem to protect and preserve Chinook salmon and the Southern Resident orcas who depend on them as a critical food source. Both of these species face imminent extinction. OSA works to change policies and educate the public on issues impacting these species in order to improve Chinook runs and prevent further decline of the Southern Resident orca population.
Image: Members of L pod in Active Pass. Hysazu Photography.