Endangered orcas dying off along West Coast over lack of food

MONTEREY, CA (KSBW/CNN) – They’re beautiful, exotic creatures, but soon there might not be any left.

Experts say southern resident orcas are dying out along the West Coast from a lack of food. Because they’re so malnourished, they likely won’t be able to successfully reproduce.

"We need to preserve them for our future generations. It's so important," said Peggy Stapp with Marine Life Studies.

Stapp said it’s not often that Monterey Bay gets a glimpse of southern resident killer whales. The most recent time was in late March. Before that was in 2011.

But these sightings may become scarcer, because this species of orca is in danger.

The once abundant population has dropped to 75, the lowest number in more than 30 years.

"Ship disturbance or noise could be an issue, pollution, but mostly the main issue is the lack of fish,” said marine biologist Nancy Black. “But right now, there's not a lot of salmon along the West Coast."

Southern resident orcas primarily feed on Chinook salmon, which have been declining because of issues they face navigating through dams.

"They have to go through powerhouses, so each step of the way in getting out to the open ocean can decrease the chances of survival, just through those challenges,” said Ashley Blacow-Draeger with Oceana. “So, either by removing dams or at least by increasing the amount of water that is spilled over the top of the dams can help increase the chances of survival for those salmon species."

The Center for Biological Diversity has taken action, pushing the federal government to help create and expand safe habitats for the orcas to breed along the coast of California, Washington and Oregon.

The federal government said it will propose expanded habitat protections along the West Coast by October.

But marine life experts said even with these expansions, it won’t be an easy fix.

"I would say there is hope, but it's a matter of time,” said Josh McInnes with Marine Life Studies. “A population that declines to this extent means that there's going to be issues with the gene pool, especially because they don't interbreed with the northern resident community or with the transient communities."

And due to the lack of proper nutrients, it’s more difficult for the southern resident orcas to carry their calves to full term.

But one calf is providing a glimmer of hope.

“'Lucky,' as I hear this little orca has been named. So, I think that provides a lot of optimism and hope for recovery of the southern resident population,” Blacow-Draeger said.

Experts are still concerned about Lucky’s health, but they’re hopeful the calf will survive.

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