The Orca Connection

The Southern Resident Orca Whales of Washington State's Puget Sound are a critical part of the Northwest ecosystem and economy, drawing millions of tourism dollars each year. They are also endangered, facing severe threats to their survival. One of the major problems orca's face is a lack of food, and that means salmon. Read more for additional information on how these two critical Northwest species are connected.

Lewiston Tribube:  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.

Noise and interference from recreational, commercial and military crafts can also change the feeding behavior of the whales and make them malnourished.

"The three main threats are probably working together to cause the problem," Barre said.
Those pushing the breaching initiative say removing the dams would dramatically boost Snake River spring chinook and doing that would provide more food for killer whales, which would go a long way to addressing all three threats.

"The southern resident killer whales are starving," said Sharon Grace of Friday Harbor and coordinator for the Southern Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative.

Scientists have established the whales are often in poor shape from lack of food. During the summer months when they frequent the Puget Sound area and seas around the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island, they feed primarily on chinook from the Fraser River in Canada.
During the winter months, they travel up and down the West Coast between British Columbia and


Islander Weekly: Dam removal initiative finds footing in DC

by Emily Greenberg
Journal Reporter
Jan 31, 2015

CSI-logo copyWhat started as a petition to be submitted to Washington state congressional representatives will soon find its way to the nation’s capital.

Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative, an organization formed recently by San Juan islanders, is petitioning for removal of the lower four Snake River dams. The group wants the dams removed to help recover the beleaguered southern resident orca population that rely heavily on chinook salmon for food. The dams are located in southeast Washington.

The population of the southern residents sits at 78 whales, a 30-year low.

“The orcas are starving,” said Sharon Grace, organizer of Salmon Initiative. “Breaching the Snake River dams is the most effective means to provide food to the orcas.”

The group’s petition for removal of the Snake River dams was launched on the petition platform in mid-December. As of Jan. 26, it’s been signed by  more than 8,500 supporters.

The petition has gained momentum quickly, which attracted the attention of two major organizations headed to Washington D.C. to lobby for the same cause.

To push for removal of the Snake River dams, the local Salmon Initiative is now working with Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation organizations and businesses, and Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company with a focus on conservation.

The plight of the orcas, brought to the surface by Salmon Initiative’s petition, will be presented in D.C. by Save Our Wild Salmon and Patagonia alongside other critical information.


2025279620Seattle Times: Ten years after ESA listing, killer whale numbers falling

Puget Sound’s already small killer-whale population has declined in the decade since it was protected under the Endangered Species Act. Some experts view the death this month of a pregnant female orca as an alarm bell for the region’s southern residents.

By Craig Welch, Seattle Times environment reporter

December 20, 2014

The death of J32, the pregnant orca known as Rhapsody, is renewing concern among some scientists about the fate of the rest of Puget Sound's southern resident killer whales.

He’s trailed them and photographed them, mapped their family trees and counted their offspring, coming to identify individuals by their markings, sometimes even ascribing personalities based on behavior.

For much of the past 40 years, the dean of San Juan Island orca research has vacillated between hope and frustration about the future of Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales.

But the death this month of J32, an 18-year-old orca known as Rhapsody — who was pregnant with a nearly full-term female calf — is pushing Ken Balcomb closer to despair.

“The death of this particular whale for me shows that we’re at a point in history where we need to wake up to what we have to consider: ‘Do we want whales or not?’ ” said Balcomb, with the Center for Whale Research.


Pregnant killer whale J-32 was starving, necropsy reveals

CBS News, December 15, 2014

Death of killer whale J-32 troubling, say scientists

orca eating salmon CFWRQuestions remain after a necropsy revealed a young female orca in the endangered southern resident population was malnourished when she died before giving birth to a full-term calf.

Preliminary necropsy results released by the Center for Whale Research indicate that J-32 had a thin layer of blubber and had not been feeding adequately for an extended period of time.
But the report also concluded the 19-year-old female likely died because she could not expel a nearly full-term fetus from her body, and that the fetus might have been dead for some time.

"The question is why did the fetus die, and why are we having so much trouble with reproductive success in this population?" said Kenneth Balcomb, the executive director of the center.

J-32,  also known as Rapsody, died near Nanaimo earlier this month. Her body was towed to a beach near Comox, where experts from several agencies conducted an necropsy.

Parts of the whale were removed for further analysis by officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The results of that analysis have yet to be released.

J-32 was one of only 12 reproductive-viable females in the endangered population.

Swimming in toxins

Southern resident orcas are thought to be the most contaminated marine mammals in the world, and tests have shown their blubber contains high levels of contaminants such as PCBs.


Seattle Times: 7-week-old baby orca missing, presumed dead

web LostBabyOrca-2-620x411Associated Press and Seattle Times staff

FRIDAY HARBOR — A killer whale born to much hope in early September apparently died while its pod was in the open ocean off Washington or British Columbia, the Center for Whale Research said.
The baby was the first known calf born since 2012 to a population of endangered orcas that frequent Puget Sound in Washington.

It has not been seen since its pod returned in recent days to inland waters of western Washington, said center’s Ken Balcomb.

“The baby is gone,” he said Tuesday.

The pod was offshore for a week to 10 days, and the orca designated L-120 might have been lost in a storm in the middle of last week, Balcomb said.


KING 5 TV: Orca expert's dire warning about Puget Sound orcas

from the desk of Joseph Bogaard. July 7, 2014 is a link to an excellent July 3 news story on KING5 TV - highlighting renowned killer whale expert Ken Balcomb and his most recent efforts to sound the alarm bells re: the critical situation facing the Northwest's endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SWKWs).

The orca population is in decline and while the federal agencies have identified a number causes, the severe and persistent lack of available prey - primarily chinook salmon - is, according the Mr. Balcomb, most pressing and important to address quickly.

The Columbia and Snake rivers have historically been an essential source of chinook for these orcas - especially in the lean winter months. NOAA-Fisheries, the federal agency charged with protecting both endangered orcas and endangered salmon has previously identified the historic predation by these orcas on Columbia Basin chinook salmon and have described the decline of salmon in the Columbia River basin as “[p]erhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s...”

Nevertheless, this same federal agency insisted in January on producing an inadequate status quo 2014 Columbia-Snake River Salmon Plan that once again is far more favorable to river industrialists than the endangered salmon populations, and the imperiled orca and struggling fishing businesses and communities that rely on healthy, abundant salmon populations.

Click here to see the story online (you can read the text below). Click here to learn more about the orca-salmon connection and the federal agencies' inadequate 2014 Columbia Basin Salmon Plan here.


Save Our wild Salmon is a diverse, nationwide coalition working together to restore wild salmon and steelhead to the rivers, streams and marine waters of the Pacific Northwest for the benefit of our region's ecology, economy and culture.


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