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.

On November 8, 2019, the task force released it's year two final comprehensive report and recommendations for recovering Southern Residents. The first set of recommendations went to the Governor in November 2018. From the first set, 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.

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

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 73 as of August 2019, the lowest in more than 30 years.

Chinook salmon, primary food for Southern Resident orca. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

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
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.

Ongoing strategies

The task force and working groups are developing a second report with long term recommendations for recovery of the Southern Resident orca population. It will be considered for adoption at the task force's final meeting, Oct. 7, 2019, in Seattle at the University of Washington. Official delivery to Governor Inslee is planned for Nov. 8, 2019.