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caption: A southern resident orca from J pod, seen in inland waters for the first time since July 6, on Aug. 15, 2019, near Lime Kiln Point off San Juan Island. (Image taken under authority of NMFS permit No. 22141)
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A southern resident orca from J pod, seen in inland waters for the first time since July 6, on Aug. 15, 2019, near Lime Kiln Point off San Juan Island. (Image taken under authority of NMFS permit No. 22141)
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Where are the orcas? Not in the Salish Sea, where there's no food this summer

For the second year in a row, the region's endangered orcas have been missing from their key habitat around the San Juan Islands for months at a time.

Some of the endangered orcas popped up just west of San Juan Island Friday night, but they appeared to head west toward the open ocean again.

Before that brief visit, none of the endangered southern resident killer whales had been spotted in inland waters since April 10.

Researchers say a continued decline of Chinook salmon from Canada's Fraser River, just north of the San Juans, gives orcas less reason to visit their usual haunts this time of year.

A "test fishery," used to predict the size of incoming salmon runs, caught zero Chinook salmon off the mouth of the Fraser in May. Their absence from the catch was unprecedented.

"Records go back to 1981 and this is the first May on record the test fishery caught zero Chinook," whale watch captain Jeff Friedman, who spotted some members of L pod Friday night, said in an email.

"This is bad," University of Washington whale biologist Deborah Giles said in an email.

Some commercial whale watching has resumed, with reduced capacity and new Covid protections.