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Princess Angeline was born into a shattered community – the population of southern resident killer whales had been reduced to a historic low of 70 after a decade-long campaign of live capture and killings.

But at her mother’s side, she learned her language, and the skills she needed to survive: Where to find chinook salmon in all seasons, and how to hunt as a team and then share the catch so that every member of the family has a chance to thrive.

In 1977, she was born in the waters off the West Coast as the population was starting to recover: Canada had just banned live capture of killer whales for marine parks, and the wanton shooting by mariners fell out of favour as the public became captivated by these intelligent cetaceans (rebranded as orca by conservationists) whose social units mirror, in some uncanny ways, those of human families.

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Today, Princess Angeline – or J17 as she is known to researchers – is a matriarch. Her children and grandchildren travel with her as she passes on her knowledge and helps feed even her 10-year-old son, Moby (J44). They will remain in this family unit, the matriline, with its unique dialect that has been passed down for generations, until she dies.

Now in her early 40s, she is likely approaching menopause, but she could live for decades yet. Except, she may be starving to death.

In images captured in early May, she and her youngest daughter, three-year-old Kiki (J53), appear emaciated. Researchers don’t know whether the pair are ill, but J17 now shows the telltale “peanut head” that indicates a significant decrease of blubber. Their loss would be devastating for a population that is once again at a perilous level.

Growing marine traffic and pollution, and a diminishing abundance of the chinook salmon that they depend upon, have driven the population of killer whales – technically, dolphins – back down to 75 animals. At these levels, scientists are worried that inbreeding is weakening the population even further.

The Canadian government has announced a string of measures over the past year aimed at helping the killer whales recover, ahead of a decision it will deliver by June 18 on the fate of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Concern about the impact of the project on the southern residents forced a reconsideration process, and Ottawa hopes it has taken enough measures to mitigate increased tanker traffic through their critical feeding areas.

But Princess Angeline’s condition underlines the trouble the population is in.

Much depends on dinner

New rules are in place this summer to give the

endangered southern resident killer whales a

better chance to feed, including wider distances

for whale watching, voluntary vessel slow

downs for large commercial traffic, and limits

on chinook salmon fishing. With at least two

members of the southern residents showing

signs of starvation, this summer’s chinook

salmon returns will be critical.

Southern resident killer whale (SRKW)

Name: Killer whale or orca (Orcinus orca)

Social: The SRKW lives in an extended

family made up of three pods: J,K,L

Diet: Mostly chinook salmon

Key threats

Shipping; noise; pollution; oil spills;

declining food

Rounded

dorsal fin

Open saddle

patch marking

Fluke

Eye

Pectoral flipper

ALASKA

0

200

KM

Haida

Gwaii

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Vancouver

Vancouver

Island

Critical

habitat:

Salish

Sea

Victoria

Pacific

Ocean

Seattle

WASH.

Portland

Their range extends

from southeastern

Alaska to central

California

OREGON

CALIF.

San Francisco

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

Much depends on dinner

New rules are in place this summer to give the endan-

gered southern resident killer whales a better chance to

feed, including wider distances for whale watching,

voluntary vessel slowdowns for large commercial traffic,

and limits on chinook salmon fishing. With at least two

members of the southern residents showing signs of

starvation, this summer’s chinook salmon returns will be

critical.

Southern resident killer whale (SRKW)

Name: Killer whale or orca (Orcinus orca)

Social: The SRKW lives in an extended

family made up of three pods: J,K,L

Diet: Mostly chinook salmon

Key threats

Shipping; noise; pollution; oil spills;

declining food

Rounded

dorsal fin

Open saddle

patch marking

Fluke

Eye

Pectoral flipper

ALASKA

0

200

KM

Haida

Gwaii

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

MONTANA

Vancouver

Vancouver

Island

Critical

habitat:

Salish

Sea

Victoria

Pacific

Ocean

Seattle

WASH.

Portland

UTAH

Their range extends

from southeastern

Alaska to central

California

OREGON

CALIF.

San Francisco

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

Much depends on dinner

New rules are in place this summer to give the endangered southern resident killer

whales a better chance to feed, including wider distances for whale watching, volun-

tary vessel slowdowns for large commercial traffic, and limits on chinook salmon

fishing. With at least two members of the southern residents showing signs of starva-

tion, this summer’s chinook salmon returns will be critical.

ALASKA

Southern resident

killer whale (SRKW)

0

200

KM

Name: Killer whale or orca

(Orcinus orca)

Haida

Gwaii

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Social: The SRKW lives in

an extended family made up

of three pods: J,K,L

Pacific

Ocean

Diet: Mostly chinook salmon

Vancouver

Vancouver

Island

Key threats

Critical

habitat:

Salish

Sea

Victoria

Shipping; noise; pollution;

oil spills; declining food

Seattle

Their range extends

from southeastern

Alaska to central

California

WASH.

Rounded

dorsal fin

Anatomy

at a glance

Portland

Open saddle

patch marking

OREGON

Fluke

CALIF.

Eye

Pectoral flipper

San Francisco

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

A culture we can relate to

John Ford is a leading expert in killer-whale acoustics, social structure and eating habits. Formerly the head of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Pacific cetacean research program, he now serves as scientist emeritus.

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When he began his studies in the 1970s, little was known about the killer whales off the West Coast. Fishermen regarded them as dangerous pests, and dozens of young animals were torn from tight family units – either alive for aquariums, or dead for specimens – leaving a demographic hole in the population from which it has never fully recovered.

“They were not well loved on this coast," Dr. Ford said in an interview.

That attitude has changed in Princess Angeline’s lifetime, and governments in Canada and the United States have co-operated to try to recover what is now regarded as an iconic species.

But new challenges have emerged. Vessel traffic has increased, including with a thriving whale-watching industry in the Salish Sea where the J pod – one of three pods that make up the southern resident killer whale population – spends much of its time. Dr. Ford says the shortage of chinook is the main problem, but hunting by echolocation isn’t easy with noisy boats around.

Our affinity for killer whales is based, he says, on the many parallels that are now evident between us and these animals.

Strong family ties were evident when Princess Angeline’s first daughter, Polaris (J28), disappeared in 2016; members of the family were seen trying to feed Polaris’s 10-month-old baby, who soon went missing as well. Last summer, Princess Angeline’s second daughter, Tahlequah (J35), carried her dead newborn on her head for at least 17 days in an apparent display of grief.

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Like a human female, Princess Angeline would have hit puberty in her teens, and she is expected to enter menopause now that she is in her early 40s. She is, for a killer whale, middle-aged.

“We now recognize that these whales are among the very few mammalian groups that have what we can consider to be culture," Dr. Ford added. In addition to their unique dialects, “they are very dependent on social learning, to do what they do out there, to learn when and where and how to catch chinook salmon.”

The fact that Princess Angeline was taught to hunt almost exclusively chinook, and has in turn taught her kin the same, is a big part of the major challenge facing the southern residents today.

chinoOk salMOn in declINe

The average southern resident killer whale

needs to eat between 18 and 25 adult salmon

daily, and each family unit will share the catch

amongst themselves. They eat almost exclu-

sively chinook, and most stocks in their key

foraging areas – including the Fraser River in

British Columbia, other rivers draining into

Puget Sound and the Salish Sea from Washing

ton State – are in decline.

Main course: chinook salmon...

Other: 4%

Sockeye: 1%

Chum: 2%

Steelhead: 5%

Coho: 7%

Chinook: 82%

But total abundance has been declining since 80s

AABM Chinook Abundance Indices, select areas, 2019

North Coast

West Coast Van. Isl.

Wash./Ore.

2.00

1.50

1.00

0.50

0.00

1979

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

‘19

justine hunter and john sopinski/the globe

and mail, SOURCE: gov’t Of canadA; dept. of

fisheries and oceans; evotis.org; noaa; marine

mammal commission; ePa.gOv.; The Orca

Network; the Centre for Whale Research

chinoOk salMOn in declINe

The average southern resident killer whale needs to eat

between 18 and 25 adult salmon daily, and each family

unit will share the catch amongst themselves. They eat

almost exclusively chinook, and most stocks in their key

foraging areas – including the Fraser River in British

Columbia, other rivers draining into Puget Sound and the

Salish Sea from Washington State – are in decline.

Main course: chinook salmon...

Other: 4%

Sockeye: 1%

Chum: 2%

Steelhead: 5%

Coho: 7%

Chinook: 82%

But total abundance has been declining since 1980s

AABM Chinook Abundance Indices, select areas, 2019

North Coast

West Coast Van. Isl.

Wash./Ore.

2.00

1.50

1.00

0.50

0.00

1979

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

‘19

justine hunter and john sopinski/the globe and mail,

SOURCE: gov’t Of canadA; dept. of fisheries and oceans;

evotis.org; noaa; marine mammal commission; ePa.gOv.;

The Orca Network; the Centre for Whale Research

chinoOk salMOn in declINe

The average southern resident killer whale needs to eat between 18 and 25 adult

salmon daily, and each family unit will share the catch amongst themselves. They

eat almost exclusively chinook, and most stocks in their key foraging areas – includ-

ing the Fraser River in British Columbia, other rivers draining into Puget Sound and

the Salish Sea from Washington State – are in decline.

Main course: chinook salmon...

But total abundance has been declining since the 1980s

Summer diet

AABM Chinook Abundance Indices, select areas, 2019

North Coast

West Coast Van. Isl.

Wash./Ore.

Other: 4%

Sockeye: 1%

2.00

Chum: 2%

Steelhead: 5%

1.50

Coho: 7%

1.00

Chinook: 82%

0.50

0.00

1979

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

2019

Note: the indices for 2019 are values forecast by the Coast Wide Chinook Model

justine hunter and john sopinski/the globe and mail, SOURCE: gov’t Of canadA; dept. of

fisheries and oceans; evotis.org; noaa; marine mammal commission; ePa.gOv.; The Orca

Network; the Centre for Whale Research

Inbreeding concerns

There is another cultural quirk: The southern residents rarely intermingle with the healthier population of northern resident killer whales, even though their territories overlap.

With just 75 animals now – many too old or too young to breed – U.S. scientist Mike Ford began collecting genetic data to determine if there is a risk of inbreeding.

Dr. Ford is a conservation director with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who specializes in genetics. His initial research indicates there are only two males responsible for most of the offspring studied, and examples of inbreeding include Polaris, Princess Angeline’s first daughter. Polaris mated with her father, Ruffles (J1) to produce Star (J46).

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He is now working on detailed genome sequencing to determine whether this inbreeding is weakening the population. The findings are due within months. “I think the sorts of things we’ll learn, whether there is a statistical relationship between how genetically diverse a whale is – which is a measure of how inbred that whale is – and how many offspring do they produce, and how long that whale lives," he said.

“There is a lot of attention being paid right now to prey limitations, which is really important, but if their main problem is inbreeding rather than lack of prey, some of those efforts cannot be money or time well-spent.”

Lynne Barre, NOAA’s recovery co-ordinator for the southern resident killer whales, said agencies on both sides of the border have promised significant efforts to boost chinook stocks, reduce acoustic noise and give the southern residents more space.

“The images of [J17′s] poor body condition just raises the urgency. For me, it highlights that we need to implement all of the protective measures that have been identified," Ms. Barre said.

She cannot say whether it is too late for this pair: “We have seen whales bounce back over weeks or months, but we’ve also seen whales decline."

Like Washington State, Canada and British Columbia are investing in restoration of salmon habitat – but this is a long-term project that won’t help whales find food now. What will affect the whales is the scale of the commercial and recreational salmon fishery this year.

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“My hope is that we can leave more fish in the water and less boat disturbance,” she said. “Everyone can play a role in the recovery program.”

Princess Angeline’s family tree

Researchers last spotted a distressingly thin J17,

Princess Angeline, on May 6 in the company of

J pod. She leads her family unit, known as a

matriline, which includes her living offspring as

well as her daughters’ offspring. In her early

forties, she is unlikely to have any more calves,

and researchers believe she has given birth to

three females and one male. Her oldest daugh-

ter disappeared and is presumed dead. Her son

Moby, who is ten years old, has not reached

sexual maturity and is still dependent on his

mother for food.​

J17

‘Princess Angeline’

Sex: F Born: 1977

Alive

Deceased

J28

‘Polaris’

S: F B: 1992

D: 2016

J35

‘Tahlequah​’

S: F B: 1998

J44

‘Moby’

S: M B: 2009

J53

‘Kiki’

Sex: F B: 2015

J46

‘Star’

S: F B: 2009

J47

‘Notch’

S: M B: 2010

J54

‘Dipper’

S: M B: 2015

D: 2016

Unnamed calf

Born/died: 2018

Princess Angeline’s family tree

Researchers last spotted a distressingly thin J17, Princess

Angeline, on May 6 in the company of J pod. She leads

her family unit, known as a matriline, which includes her

living offspring as well as her daughters’ offspring. In her

early forties, she is unlikely to have any more calves, and

researchers believe she has given birth to three females

and one male. Her oldest daughter disappeared and is

presumed dead. Her son Moby, who is ten years old, has

not reached sexual maturity and is still dependent on his

mother for food.​

J17

‘Princess Angeline’

Sex: F Born: 1977

Alive

Deceased

J28

‘Polaris’

S: F B: 1992

D: 2016

J35

‘Tahlequah​’

S: F B: 1998

J44

‘Moby’

S: M B: 2009

J53

‘Kiki’

Sex: F B: 2015

J46

‘Star’

S: F B: 2009

J47

‘Notch’

S: M B: 2010

J54

‘Dipper’

S: M B: 2015

D: 2016

Unnamed calf

Born/died: 2018

Princess Angeline’s family tree

Researchers last spotted a distressingly thin J17, Princess Angeline, on May 6 in the com-

pany of J pod. She leads her family unit, known as a matriline, which includes her living

offspring as well as her daughters’ offspring. In her early forties, she is unlikely to have

any more calves, and researchers believe she has given birth to three females and one

male. Her oldest daughter disappeared and is presumed dead. Her son Moby, who is ten

years old, has not reached sexual maturity and is still dependent on his mother for food.​

J17

‘Princess Angeline’

Sex: F Born: 1977

Alive

Deceased

J28

‘Polaris’

Sex: F Born: 1992

Died: 2016

J35

‘Tahlequah​’

Sex: F Born: 1998

J44

‘Moby’

Sex: M Born: 2009

J53

‘Kiki’

Sex: F Born: 2015

J46

‘Star’

Sex: F Born: 2009

J47

‘Notch’

Sex: M Born: 2010

J54

‘Dipper’

Sex: M Born: 2015

Died: 2016

Unnamed calf

Born/died: 2018

The future

Princess Angeline and Kiki need to find enough chinook in the next few weeks if they are to bounce back, but Greg Taylor of the Pacific Marine Conservation Caucus says the prospects are bleak.

The Fraser River chinook runs that are so important to the southern residents are in decline. In 2018, the spring and summer run was 50 per cent less than the average of the previous five years. And the 2019 forecast predicts the run will be 40 per cent smaller than in 2018.

The caucus represents nine B.C. conservation organizations. They are calling for short-term relief: Close the chinook fisheries all around the southern tip of Vancouver Island for June and July. Ottawa has imposed limits this year on the chinook fishery, which it describes as “bold action,” while still allowing the large recreational fishery to take place.

“If we cannot save the southern resident killer whales, if we cannot give them precedence in this crisis," Mr. Taylor says, "then that’s a failure on all of us.”

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If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

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