Nov. 7, 2008 -- There is no place in America where killer whales are more plentiful than the San Juan Islands of Washington State, home to the world's most powerful undersea predators.
Ken Balcomb has been studying killer whales, also known as orcas, for decades. But he has never come across a finding like this: Seven orcas have gone missing and are believed to be dead.
"I'm pretty devastated," Balcomb said. "I would like to get our whole society aware of the issue here and do something about it 'cause we're going to lose them."
The missing orcas are a severe loss to the entire species; the population is vulnerable, down recently to 83 whales, from 100.
It's "almost 10 percent of the population," Balcomb said. "To lose it is like losing 10 percent of the stock market in a month."
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Balcomb's team tracks families of whales, known as "whale pods," breaking them down into family trees. From birth, each whale is named, photographed and studied by Balcomb's team. His data is used by scientists around the world but to Balcomb, the whales are family.
The seven missing orcas, identified by numbers, are babies, mothers and even great-grandmothers. One family matriarch and two newborn babies, not even a week old yet, are gone.
But what has happened to these creatures is even more tragic because Balcomb predicted it: The whales starved in an ecosystem that is falling apart.
"The trend in the whales is related to the trend in the Chinook salmon," Balcomb said of his findings. "When we have bad Chinook salmon years, we have bad whale years."
Each adult orca eats about 400 pounds of salmon a day and, lately, in the San Juan Island waters, there hasn't been enough to go around.
"These are top predators; they normally have very long lives," Balcomb said. "We are experiencing right now what we know is going to be very tough years as far as salmon is concerned."
Salmon runs in the West are at historic lows, blamed on pollution and overfishing. Researchers say the only way to reverse this trend is by imposing stricter controls on commercial fishing and tighter laws to protect rivers where salmon spawn.
Protecting the Ecosystem
"It's the ecosystem stupid; that's clearly the problem," said Fred Felleman, a marine consultant from Friends of the Earth. "We have economic crises nationally, we have an environmental crisis globally."
To restore balance to the ecosystem, not only do salmon need to be protected for the whales, but herring must be plentiful for the salmons' feed, highlighting the links in the environment.
On a recent evening overlooking the ocean, a Native American tribe came out to mourn the missing seven orcas and pray for the continued health of the rest.
"Our elders, our forefathers used to tell stories that certain individuals were rescued by the whales," one of the tribe's members said. "Our culture, we respect all of life and we are saddened when life is taken away."
The tribe believes that whales are guardians of the sea and are in need of help. Scientists agree and many, like Balcomb, are calling on the community to protect these majestic creatures.