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Changes in 2022 Bring Optimism for
Southern Resident Orcas' Recovery

by Cooper Castelle
Go Anacortes, September 28, 2022

The Snake River Dams must come down in order
for salmon populations in this region to recover.

A young resident killer whale chases a chinook salmon near Vancouver Island. (Photograph by John Durban/NOAA In the 17 years since Southern Resident orcas were put on the endangered species list, efforts to help them recover have largely failed. Their number is now believed to be 73, about the same as when they gained federal protection in 2005.

But some changes have occurred this year that have renewed hope among supporters like Howard Garrett, co-founder of Whidbey Island-based Orca Network.

Garrett is optimistic for the Southern Residents, based on grassroots support and recent success in getting some salmon-deterring dams removed to help restore their food source.

"I do expect now that the stars are aligned, the players are speaking out, all the necessary parts are ready to go," he said. "That will help the Southern Residents ... it's very good news."


The Southern Residents visited the Salish Sea this summer and are anticipated to appear with increasing frequency near the shores of Anacortes in the coming weeks. These particular three pods of killer whales tend to pass south through the Rosario Strait about a dozen times between September and January in pursuit of the chum salmon they depend on as a food source.

While they are not the only orcas in the sea, the J, K and L pods gained special status because they are a little different than other orcas. These Southern Residents have historically spent much of each year in the Salish Sea off of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Their diet is primarily Chinook salmon, unlike transient orcas, also known as Bigg's orcas, that live on marine mammals, such as seals, sea lions, dolphins and even other species of whales.

While most other orcas are not considered endangered, the Southern Residents' population has remained stagnant, and those who study them have said their main challenge is acquiring enough food for females to successfully give birth to healthy calves.

"The issue with the Southern Residents for the last 25 plus years has been nutritional deficiencies," Garrett said.

The miscarriage rate for Southern Residents is currently estimated at about 67%, and the neonatal mortality rate is about 50%, he said. About a half dozen babies have been born in the past three years — only half of what is needed to help their population to recover. The 73 whales that make up the Southern Resident population (not counting two males that Garrett said have not been seen this year and are presumed dead) are well below historical averages.

"There should be well over 100, maybe 150 and historically, there probably were 200 of them," Garrett said.

The Southern Residents historically stayed in these waters year-round, but the last five to 10 years have seen significant decreases in their time spent in the Puget Sound, as the local salmon populations also have declined, he said.


That decline of prey is one of the primary three causes of the population's decline, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The others are pollutants and disturbance by marine vessels, the NOAA website states.

Those seeking solutions look east to the many salmon-deterring dams that still occupy this region.

"We're hoping that there will be more restoration in the Columbia River system and that eventually those Snake River dams will come down and open 500 miles of pristine spawning habitat," Garrett said.

Doing so would allow many Chinook salmon, the essential food source for Southern Residents, to reach the waters upon which the whales feed. Many smaller efforts across the region are providing some aid to the orcas' cause, but progress is often slower than desired as a result of political challenges, vessel disturbances and toxins.

"It's like death by 1,000 cuts, and so we need 1,000 Band-Aids," Garrett said. "There are a lot of little Band-Aids going on in different areas and they all help."

One recent success was the destruction of the Elwha Dam and the subsequent restoration efforts of the river's basin to allow salmon to make their journey west to the waters of the Salish Sea.

Garrett said he and other supporters of restoring the Southern Residents' population see optimism in current state and federal leadership, both of which have recently affirmed explicitly that the Snake River Dams must come down in order for salmon populations in this region to recover.

Other help has come from the Climate Sound Initiative, destruction of the Pilchuck and Middle Fork Nooksack dams and other restoration efforts to improve the biodiversity and stability of the local ecosystems upon which salmon rely.

The issue of vessel disturbance was addressed in recent years with increasingly stringent regulations on distance allowed between vessels and the orcas.

Washington law prevents any vessels from operating within 300 yards of Southern Residents, and an emergency order this year expanded a requirement that commercial whale-watching vessels stay a half nautical mile away from the whales.

Enforcement of vessel regulations, although underfunded, has made some strides, according to Garrett.

"Fish and Wildlife, in cooperation with local sheriff's departments, are out there often when there are Southern Residents," he said. "They're having an effect."

That said, a recent study published by the Orca Behavior Institute is casting doubt on the new regulations' effectiveness.

According to the study, the absence of commercial whale-watching vessels may correlate with a decrease in the distance maintained between private vessels and whales, such as the Southern Residents. Data obtained between May and October 2021 shows there were 6.6 distance infractions per hour by private vessels without the presence of commercial whale-watching vessels as opposed to only 2.65 per hour with commercial whale-watching vessels present. The thinking is that the presence of commercial whale-watching vessels helps alert and redirect private vessels from the whales' path.

Cooper Castelle
Changes in 2022 Bring Optimism for Southern Resident Orcas' Recovery
Go Anacortes, September 28, 2022

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