Researchers and environmentalists are now discussing the apparent disappearence of J-10, known locally as 'Tahoma', from her pod. J-10, whose son J-18 was recently discovered dead in British Columbia, has not been seen since early winter and is also feared by many in the region to be dead.
"Orcas that disappear from their family groups for extended periods are almost always dead," says Michael Kundu, Director of Project SeaWolf. If further observations conclude that J-18 does not reappear with her group by later this Spring, researchers will concede that the female matriarch has died, just like her son did earlier this winter. Researchers estimate that J-10 was approximately 38 years of age; the average life-span of female orcas is generally believed to be between 80 to 100 years. "If J-10 is indeed dead -- and all signs seem to indicate she is -- then there is definately something afoot and contributing to the early death rate of our southern resident pods." J-10's (presumed) remaining daughter, J-22, is now the assumed eldest remaining female in the sub-group.
Last month, the body of J-10's son (J-18) was found adrift off Tsawwassan, British Columbia. Early necropsy results indicate that the bull orca was heavily ladden with PCB's (poly-chlorinated biphenyls), and that the accumulated toxins had probably contributed to his early death. "It would be a natural conclusion that, if J-18 died partially as a result of accumulated PCB's in his tissue, his mother's body would have had to contain abnormally high levels of the toxin as well," adds Kundu. While PCB's accumulate in all living whales, female orcas tend to be able to slightly reduce the levels of toxin when they nurse their young -- male orcas do not have that ability, and consequently, their accumulation of PCBs is generally much higher than females. "It's not surprising that J-10 would succumb early as well -- it wouldn't be a surprise if the next dead orca also comes from their specific sub-pod."
The southern orca population now rests at 81 animals. In light of the recent accelaration of orca decline, Project SeaWolf will immediately review whether to now send a formal request to the National Marine Fisheries Service, asking the agency to initiate consideration of the southern resident orca population as a candidate species federal 'Endangered' status.
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