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Puget Sound’s Southern Resident Orca Population Drops to 30-Year Low

September 26, 2017

Orca researchers and conservationists are urging more steps to protect Puget Sound’s endangered southern resident killer whales. The push comes in the wake of the death of a 2-year-old male orca known as J52.

The death, which researchers say was caused by malnutrition, brought the population to a 30-year low.

J52 is the seventh orca to die this year. That’s the biggest year-to-year decline ever recorded. The decline comes less than two years after a killer whale baby boom had researchers feeling optimistic about orcas’ prospects for survival in Puget Sound.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which manages the southern resident orca population, listed them as one of eight species most at risk of extinction in a 2015 report to Congress.

“We’re going to keep sliding down unless we take some immediate action to improve the situation for these whales,” says Robb Krehbiel, the northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

The southern resident orca population is suffering from two main problems: too much pollution, and not enough fish to eat. The two problems compound each other because, when orcas go through periods of starvation, they burn fat and release the toxins stored there into their bodies.

That’s why “the biggest thing that we can do to help our southern resident orcas is restore Chinook salmon runs so that there’s just plenty of fish out there in the water for these guys to eat,” says Krehbiel, with Defenders of Wildlife.

Krehbiel says the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers need to be more fish-friendly; others are calling for the complete removal of the Snake River dams.

At the same time, NOAA is considering expanding the area designated as the southern resident orcas’ critical habitat some time in 2017.

Krehbiel says it’s not just federal agencies that can do something; everyone can help address the pollution of Puget Sound by being careful about what products they use on their lawns, vehicles, and for hygiene.


L122, one of the newest members of the Southern Resident Community of orcas, spotted Sept. 7, 2016, near Sooke, British Columbia.

Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research

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A rapid shift to electric vehicles is needed to reduce the pollution which enters our rivers where the salmon live and the Salish Sea where the whales are. Will we watch these magnificent creatures perish from the earth before our eyes? What sort of world are we leaving for our children?

One easy way to speed the shift would be warning labels on every fossil fuel pump. They already have warnings for flammability and cancer, but nothing about the threat that they posed to salmon, orca, and the entire climate. Do we have the courage even to take this small step?