The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation have filed a petition to protect Southern Resident orcas under the Oregon Endangered Species Act. As of the most recent census, just 73 Southern Resident orcas remain, divided among three family groups.
“Southern Resident orcas are icons of the Pacific Northwest, yet Oregon has lingered on the sidelines of recovery efforts,” said Quinn Read, Oregon policy director at the Center. “It’s time for Oregon to step up and acknowledge its critical role in saving these incredible orcas and the Chinook salmon they depend on for survival.”
Killer whales have been listed as a state endangered species in Washington state since 2004.
In recent years, births have failed to outpace deaths among the population. The primary threats to the remaining Southern Resident orcas are steep declines in prey quality and quantity, high levels of marine contaminants, noise and disturbance from vessels and other human activity, and the risk of oil spill. Chinook salmon make up about 80% of the Southern Residents’ diet. The decline of the Southern Residents’ population is tightly correlated with the decline of Chinook salmon throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“These are Oregon’s orcas, too,” said Colleen Weiler, Jessica Rekos fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “The threats to these whales exist throughout their range, and so does the opportunity to take action to save them.”
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 play an important role in Oregon’s ecosystems. They need and deserve every protection we can give them,” said Kathleen Callaghy, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Their population hasn’t increased in over five years. There is no time to waste.”
Although Southern Resident orcas are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, the population has continued to decline. 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. Under state law, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has 90 days to determine whether the petition provides substantial scientific information to warrant listing.
The Oregon Endangered Species Act applies to state lands, including the nearshore, notes the petition. “Although federally designated critical habitat for the Southern Residents includes the inland waters of the Salish Sea and coastal waters of Washington, Oregon, and California, it excludes the nearshore area. However, Oregon’s nearshore and inland waters support populations of salmon and forage fish that are critical to the survival of the Southern Residents orcas and impact the water quality of the whole ecosystem.
“Oregon has remained on the sidelines of orca recovery for too long. The continued decline of the Southern Residents, despite Federal protections, demands action from Oregon. Listing Southern Resident orcas under Oregon’s Endangered Species Act is a necessary supplement to existing protections. It would require the development of a state endangered species management plan, which would spur important coordination among relevant state agencies and concrete actions to address the primary threats to orcas in Oregon. It could help the state access much-needed Federal funding, and more easily direct and prioritize resources for orca and salmon recovery. It would complement the state’s existing efforts to recover salmon and amplify Oregon’s voice in ongoing and future regional processes.
Finally, it would send a message to Oregonians that our state values this species and recognizes our important role in ensuring their survival.”
The primary threats to Southern Resident orcas “are steep declines in prey quality and quantity, high levels of marine contaminants, noise and disturbance from vessels and other human activity, and the risk of oil spill,” says the petition.
“Chinook salmon make up about 80% of the Southern Residents’ diet. The decline of the Southern Residents’ population is tightly correlated with the decline of Chinook salmon throughout the Pacific Northwest. Nutritional stress makes these orcas more vulnerable to all the other threats in their environment. For example, orcas store chemical pollutants in their fatty tissues and, when nutritionally stressed and forced to rely on fat stores for survival, those pollutants are released and wreak havoc on critical biological functions. Likewise, noise pollution from vessels can interfere with the echolocation the whales use to locate already scarce prey. These threats exist in all the places these orcas call home. Reducing and mitigating them will depend on state, regional, and federal efforts to effect change.”
In California, Oregon, and Washington, approximately 85% of historical tidal wetlands have been lost, says the petition. This nearshore habitat, particularly estuary systems, are critical nursery and growth areas for juvenile salmon.
“Degradation of coastal ecosystems may affect the foraging and growth success of juvenile salmon, reducing survival and the abundance of adult salmon available for Southern Resident orcas. Protecting and restoring estuaries and nearshore habitat such as eelgrass is essential to supporting salmon recovery and increasing prey for orcas.
Upstream activities also impact water quality both in watersheds important to salmon survival and in nearshore and coastal ocean areas inhabited by the orcas, says the petition to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.
“Point sources of pollution to these watersheds include chemical contamination and wastewater discharge; non-point sources include runoff from agriculture, runoff and alterations of stream habitat by timber practices,and effluents from municipal wastewater.
“The impairment of freshwater and estuarine salmon habitat impacts the survival and subsequent availability of salmon to Southern Resident orcas, and the travel of contaminants from upstream sources to the ocean environment affects the health of the orcas directly.”
–CBB, Feb. 17, 2023, NEW DATA ON SALMON BEHAVIOR IN OCEAN, AVAILABILITY OF CHINOOK FOR ENDANGERED ORCAS, RESETS THRESHOLD FOR FISHING LIMITS https://cbbulletin.com/new-data-on-salmon-behavior-in-ocean-availability-of-chinook-for-endangered-orcas-resets-threshold-for-fishing-limits/