The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission accepted a petition to list the Southern Resident killer whale Distinct Population Segment as endangered under the Oregon Endangered Species Act.
Acceptance of the petition initiates the rule-making process that will include an assessment of the biological status of SRKW in Oregon by ODFW and consultation with affected agencies, tribes, organizations, and the public.
An actual decision on listing SRKW will not be made until a future commission meeting. The petition was made by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
SRKW use coastal waters off Oregon, Washington and California and currently number just 73 individuals in three pods. Some key factors behind SRKW’s decline are scarcity of prey (primarily Chinook), high levels of contaminants from pollution, disturbance from vessels/sound and inbreeding. This population is already listed on the federal ESA.
“Southern Resident orcas are one step closer to getting the protection they need in Oregon, thanks to the wildlife commission’s leadership,” said Quinn Read, Oregon policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is an encouraging sign that Oregon has moved from the sidelines of orca recovery onto the field of play. It’s about time.”
“These beloved orcas are on the brink of extinction and need and deserve all the help we can give,” said Kathleen Callaghy, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “We are happy this petition is moving forward. It’s a scientifically sound and collaborative way of formalizing Oregon’s commitments to their recovery.”
Southern Resident orcas are recognized by their unique and striking black and white coloration and their history in popular culture. These orcas have an extensive range, which includes the inland and coastal waters of Washington and the coastal waters of Oregon and California.
The mouth of the Columbia River on Oregon’s northern border is a crucial foraging area for the whales, and more than half of the chinook salmon consumed while they are in coastal waters can be traced to the Columbia Basin.
The Southern residents even have their own dialect, which is unique among orcas. They feed almost exclusively on Chinook salmon, which are also experiencing population declines because of dams, habitat destruction, and other issues.
“It’s a no-brainer,” said Colleen Weiler, Jessica Rekos fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “The Southern Residents regularly forage for Chinook salmon off the Oregon coast. Oregon is part of their home. There is still a lot of work to be done for Oregon to put meaningful recovery measures in place, but this is the much-needed first step, and we thank the commission for recognizing this opportunity for Oregon to be part of saving the Southern Residents.”
Oregon state listing would require the development of a state endangered species management plan, which would spur coordination among relevant state agencies and the development of concrete actions to address the primary threats to orcas in Oregon.