Protecting orcas 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 in November, 2018. From these, the 2019 Legislature adopted, and the Governor signed, a package of new laws to better protect orcas and aid in their recovery. We are responsible to oversee and carry out many of the investments in that package.

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: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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 76 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. ‚ÄčAvailability of Chinook salmon
  2. Toxic contaminants in the environment
  3. Disturbance from noise and vessel traffic
The task force set up work groups to focus on each of these threats. We have been leading the 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.

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
What is Washington doing to help orcas? Beyond protecting the ecosystem that supports orcas, we must tackle new short and long-term challenges.

Helping orcas survive

The work that we and others perform helps, but it’s not enough. Southern Resident orcas are in trouble. 

The Governor’s Executive Order, the Task Force’s 2018 recommendations, and laws enacted in 2019 based on some of the recommendations, put many state initiatives into effect to further protect and bring about the recovery of orcas, salmon, and the food web on which they depend. We’re responsible for leading or supporting several of these.

Fish passage aid Improving oil transportation safety Streamflow restoration Vessels of opportunity Grants and loans

Ongoing strategies

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.