The Orca Connection

orca.kitsapThe Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) of Washington State's Puget Sound amd Salish Sea are a critical part of the Northwest ecosystem and economy. They are apex predators, much-loved icons of Washington State that generate tens of millions in tourism dollars every year. They are also officially "endangered" and face severe threats to their survival. A top problem for the SRKWs is a lack of an adequate prey base - chinook salmon.

Despite having learned much about these imperiled whales in the last decade, NOAA has made precious little actual progress to meet their essential needs. The Columbia Basin — and the Snake River watershed in particular — that holds the greatest promise for restoring significant numbers of chinook in the near-term. For this reason, orca scientists and advocates increasingly support calls for the removal of the four costly lower Snake River dams.

No other Northwest chinook restoration proposal offers such potential. Investing in a healthy, free-flowing lower Snake River will restore salmon’s spawning access to more than 5,500 high-quality river and stream miles and produce hundreds of thousands more chinook to help southern resident killer whales s survive and rebuild. As orca advocates, we look forward to the opportunity to work with the people of Washington and beyond to craft a plan that restores the Snake River and serves orcas, salmon and our communities on both sides of the Cascades.

Read the articles and posts for additional information on how these two critical Northwest species are connected.

Seattle Times: Researchers tracking killer whales took this video of a new calf from the endangered orca population that spends much of its time in Puget Sound.

orca.videoBy Hal Bernton

NOAA Fisheries researchers tracking killer whales off the Northwest coast took this video of a new calf from the endangered wild southern resident orca population that spends much of its time in Puget Sound. These whales often make winter forays along the Washington and Oregon coasts, and good weather and ocean conditions gave researchers excellent access during a three-week cruise, according to a statement released by NOAA Fisheries.

The research crew observed the calf with other whales in the L-pod, one of three families of southern resident killer whales, according to Brad Hanson, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

This is the third calf documented this year for the southern residents. Hanson told the Associated Press last month that the baby looks great and was very active when seen.


Chinook Observer: Animal roundup: Baby orca leads a parade of returning species

orca.calf.2Orcas, great white sharks, sea lions and more turn local waters into a spectacle of vibrant spring life

Katie Wilson
March 3, 2015

As spring Chinook salmon moved into the Lower Columbia River last week, they encountered busy waters in river and ocean alike.

Salmon-loving orcas roamed the Oregon and Washington coasts — to the delight of NOAA researchers who say they have been having great success observing and tracking these relatives of dolphins on the outer coast for the past two weeks.

Most recently, the L pod, as this particular family of orcas is known, were spotted in waters directly off the Long Beach Peninsula Feb. 26, not long after being photographed at the mouth of Grays Harbor earlier that day.

“I keep thinking we have probably used all our luck up but things keep falling into place,” said Brad Hanson, lead researcher on the Southern Resident killer whale survey team. “By yesterday afternoon [Wednesday] we were down to one day’s fuel supply for the Zodiac. The whales have been all over the coasts of Washington and Oregon in the past two weeks but they managed to conveniently be in the vicinity of the entrance to Grays Harbor this morning [Thursday] allowing us to go in and quickly refuel.”

In photos the researchers took later, it is possible to see the calf’s fetal folds, indicating that it is likely only a few days old.

The orcas spent the afternoon foraging off the Long Beach Peninsula, and were observed by NOAA for weeks at various places between Neah Bay and Monterey. In addition to last Thursday, they were tracked in the immediate vicinity of the Long Beach Peninsula on Feb. 19, 20 and 25. They also spent several days off the North Coast of Oregon in the last week of February.

NOAA has been tracking the movements of Puget Sound-based orcas via satellite tags since 2009, finding they often spend extended amounts of time foraging up and down the outer coast in the winter, with the Columbia River’s biologically rich plume being a particular attraction.


Chinook Observer: Baby orca in the Columbia River plume this week

orca.calfIconic Pacific Northwest whales make annual pilgrimage to the Columbia River plume

LONG BEACH — The satellite-tagging program that tracks movements of orcas in Pacific Northwest waters has been monitoring a killer whale pod swimming in the vicinity of the Long Beach Peninsula this week.
The iconic marine mammals were first tracked via satellite in this area in 2013. Last year, the tag became detached early in the season and the pod’s southward migration couldn’t be observed in detail. But this year, tagging was again successful and the researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been posting regular updates at

Most excitingly this year, a newborn orca calf is traveling with its mother, and has been photographed in the ocean west of Westport and northwest of the Long Beach Peninsula’s northern tip.

According to NOAA’s latest blog post:
“25 February update — We were about 15 miles west of Westport this morning when we relighted the whales and observed a new calf — L94 appears to be the mother. To recap since our previous posting, on 23 February we were off Cape Lookout, Oregon following the whales north. Yesterday, we continued following the whales north past the mouth to the Columbia River. Since L84 was tagged a week ago we have been with all of K pod but only part of L pod. On 23 February Jon Scordino with Makah Fisheries sent us photos taken on 20 February of L25 off Cape Flattery, which indicated another part of L pod was in the general area. This morning, shortly after we launched our Zodiac we observed L41, part of the group that includes L25, indicating that another group of L pod had joined up overnight — this is first time we have documented pods reuniting on the outer coast. Fortunately the whales were very grouped up and within a few minutes we observed the new calf — with its unique orange-ish color on the white areas. The calf looked very energetic. We have five more days on the cruise and look forward to additional observations of the calf and collecting additional prey and fecal samples.”

The Chinook Observer will have more on this story in our March 4 edition.

Bellingham Herald Guest Opinion: Survival of endangered orcas in the Salish Sea depends on restoring chinook

orcaBHBy Howard Garrett
February 27, 2015

Anniversaries are a time for reflection and assessment. A decade ago in 2005, NOAA, the federal agency charged with protecting marine mammals, listed the southern resident killer whales under the Endangered Species Act. Despite having learned much about these imperiled whales since then, NOAA has made little actual progress to meet their essential needs. In the last decade, deaths have outnumbered births by a ratio of two to one. Many scientists now fear the population teeters on the edge of extinction. Those of us who care about southern residents should contact our federal and state elected officials to ensure that NOAA acts quickly to put our cherished orcas on a path to recovery.

Today, we know more about the southern residents than ever before. Recent research in the Salish Sea and near the mouth of the Columbia River, for example, shows southern resident killer whales are highly dependent on chinook — even when other salmon are present. Orca hormone levels, however, reflect severe nutritional stress. Southern resident killer whales today aren’t finding sufficient Chinook to maintain — much less increase — their diminished population.

A preliminary report from the necropsy of J32, or Rhapsody, the charismatic, much-loved 18-year-old female who died with her full-term calf last December, describes a thin, dry blubber layer indicative of chronic food shortages. Nutritional deficits bring orcas more trouble: metabolizing blubber mobilizes harmful toxins that cause other serious conditions like sterility, immune system impairment and death.

Recent research also confirms the importance of Columbia Basin chinook to southern resident killer whales. Southern residents often leave the Salish Sea to hunt at the Columbia’s mouth for both Snake and Columbia River chinook. But this isn’t actually news. In its 2008 orca recovery plan, NOAA acknowledges orcas’ historic reliance on Columbia Basin chinook and describes its population declines as “[p]erhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s...”


Lewiston Tribune:  Whale concerns prompt dam petition

orca eating salmon CFWRGroup says breaching dams would provide more food for threatened Puget Sound orcas

February 23, 2015

Another group is taking aim at the lower Snake River dams, this time as a vehicle to recover southern resident killer whales that spend much of the year in Washington's Puget Sound.

Members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative are pushing a petition that calls for breaching the dams, something that salmon advocates have long desired.

According to the petition posted on, "chinook salmon runs originating in the Columbia/Snake River watershed are the singular most important food source for the killer whales' survival."

Most fisheries scientists agree breaching the dams would greatly benefit threatened and endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead. But the federal government chose instead to invest in fish passage improvements at the dams and a mix of habitat restoration, hatchery reform and tighter management of sport and commercial fishing.

The Puget Sound population of killer whales, also known as orcas, face three distinct threats: a shortage of prey, the accumulation of toxic chemicals in their bodies and interference from boat traffic and noise. All of the threats are intertwined, said Lynne Barre, a marine biologist with the protective resources division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Seattle.

When whales don't have enough to eat, they rely on the fat reserves in their blubber. But that is the same place toxic chemicals are stored like the now banned insecticide DDT, PCBs found in industrial coolants and lubricants and PBDEs found in flame retardants. Whales acquire the toxins as they eat fish, that in turn acquire the chemicals when they feed on other fish and organisms lower in the food chain.
When those fat reserves are tapped because of food shortages, the chemicals enter the blood stream of the whales and can make them ill. Whales that are suffering from toxins have a more difficult time feeding.


Kitsap Sun: K and L pods under observation as they travel south in ocean

orca.kitsapBy Christopher Dunagan

February 20, 2015

While J pod continues to hang out in the Salish Sea, NOAA’s research cruise has shifted its focus to K and L pods, which have worked their way south along the Washington Coast to beyond the Columbia River.

(The newest calf in J pod, J-51, swims with its mother J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. // NOAA photo)

If you recall, a research team led by Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center left Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11 aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada. Homing in on a satellite tag attached to J-27 (named Blackberry), the ship met up with J pod two days later near Canada’s Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia.

The researchers were able to collect scales from fish killed by the whales to determine what kind of fish they were eating. It was the first time that a sample of this kind has been collected outside of Puget Sound during the month of February, Brad reported.

The ship stayed with J pod and its two new babies as they moved around in the general area of Texada Island. Then last Sunday the satellite tag came off J-27, as it was designed to do after a period of time. Hanson was pleased that the tag had stayed on so long, allowing researchers to track six weeks of travels by J pod, which had never been tracked that extensively before.


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