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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.
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 is preparing a report with recommendations for recovering the southern resident orca population. A draft is due by Sept. 24, 2018, and the final report by Nov. 16, 2018. A second report, due Oct. 1, 2019, will report on progress made, lessons learned, and ongoing needs.
We are leading a task force work group focused on toxic contaminants. Our 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 will:

  • Identify actions most likely to be implemented and have a beneficial impact on southern resident killer whales.

  • Provide the Governor’s task force with decision-making support.

  • Help develop a strategic package for short-term and long-term actions.

Upcoming steps

The main task force and its work groups have scheduled alternating meetings to develop, review, and finalize the first set of recommendations.