Protecting orca whales from extinction

Southern resident killer whales, or orcas, are a beloved icon of the Pacific Northwest. We are a member of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force, which is aimed at orca recovery and sustainability. The task force presented its first set of recommendations to the Governor on Nov. 16, 2018. We have been leading a task force work group focused on toxic contaminants. This team is working to identify how the state can help reduce the impacts of human-caused contamination on the orcas. Drawing from the closely aligned Puget Sound Action Agenda, the contaminants group:
  • Identifies actions most likely to be implemented and have a beneficial impact on southern resident killer whales.
  • Provides the Governor’s task force with decision-making support.
  • Helps develop a strategic package for short-term and long-term actions.
Orca breaching in Puget Sound. Mountainous terrain in background.

Southern resident orcas visit the Salish Sea from late spring through the fall. Photo: Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Toxic substances, such as PCBs, that accumulate in animal tissues become more concentrated as bigger animals eat smaller animals. Animals at the top of the food chain, like orcas, end up with the highest concentration. Illustration: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Orca survival

In spite of their protected status as an endangered species by Washington state, the U.S., and Canada, the southern resident orca population has fallen. It has declined from 98 in 1995 to only 74 as of September 2018, the lowest in 30 years.

The orca-salmon connection

Southern resident orcas reside in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea waters of British Columbia from late spring through the fall. They also migrate along the west coast from Northern California to Southeast Alaska.
This orca species feeds primarily on Chinook salmon, which also are in decline, adding urgency to salmon recovery efforts in Washington. Many southern residents have been observed to be in poor physical condition and are experiencing difficulty raising calves.

The southern resident orcas face three main threats: 

  1. ​Availability of Chinook salmon
  2. Toxic contaminants in the environment
  3. Disturbance from noise and vessel traffic

How our work helps

Much of the work we do to protect and restore the overall environment benefits orcas. The following are just a few examples.

Oil spill prevention Protecting and restoring habitat Puget Sound priority cleanups Reducing toxic chemicals Scientific support

The sound from oikomi pipes hung from vessels can deter orcas from oil spills. Whale-watching industry volunteers will receive training on working with spill responders to use the pipes, in accordance with the Governor's executive order. Photo: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Helping orcas survive

The work that we and others perform helps, but it’s not enough. Southern resident orcas are in trouble.  Governor Inslee’s Executive Order of March 14, 2018, directed state agencies to take several immediate actions and to recommend long-term strategies.

Immediate steps

The Governor's order assigned us two short-term actions, which we have completed.

Vessels of opportunity

We created a curriculum to train boat operators in the whale-watching industry on techniques to safely deter orcas from oil spills.

Grants and loans

We applied criteria so that existing grant and loan programs will prioritize stormwater projects that benefit southern resident recovery, starting in the 2017-19 biennium.

Ongoing strategies

The task force issued a report of recommendations (PDF document) on Nov. 16, 2018 for actions to recover southern resident orcas. The recommendations were generated by the three working groups that advise the task force and focus on:

  • Lack of prey
  • Toxic contaminants
  • Disturbance from noise and vessel traffic

Upcoming steps

The task force and working groups will develop a second report, due in the fall of 2019, with long term recommendations for recovery of the southern resident orca population.