A newborn killer whale found dead on a Copper Bay beach in early March was part of the threatened northern resident population.
A tissue analysis and final report may take another month to complete, but a DNA study recently confirmed that the young killer whale was a northern resident — a genetically unique population of just over 300 animals.
“She was separated from her mom just after birth,” said Kelly Aitken, a local fisheries officer with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Nearly half of all killer whales die between birth and six months of age.
When they do mature, female killer whales can live between 50 and 80 years old, but their high infant mortality rate brings the average lifespan of females down to 29. Killer whales also calve just once every five years, on average.
Combined with the added stress of human-caused pollution, whale-watching tours, and declining salmon numbers, killer whale populations tend to have extremely low growth rates.
DFO reports that while the northern resident population grew from 1977 to 1997, since the year 2000 it has fallen by about seven per cent, most likely due to lack of available prey and water pollution.
Northern residents are fish-eating killer whales. They appear to spend most of their time in the waters between Dixon Entrance, Campbell River and Alberni Inlet, but have been seen as far north as Glacier Bay, Alaska and as far south as Grays Harbor, Washington.
Some of the population is regularly found in the southeastern Queen Charlotte Strait during the summer and fall, but their critical spring habitat is so far unknown.