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 to remove 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 survive and rebuild. Save Our wild Salmon looks forward to the opportunity to work with the people of Washington State 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.

Patagonia's The Cleanest Line: Save Money, Save Salmon, Save Mike: Free the Snake

orca eating salmon CFWRAugust 21, 2015

By Steve Hawley

Meet Mike. He’s 21 years old, 20 feet long, weighs about 10,000 pounds. He speaks a language that was taught to him by his elders: a series of squeaks, clicks and squeals that allow him to coordinate hunting strategies with his clan. His species is the apex predator in the eastern Pacific. He also babysits.

Mike is often seen protectively swimming alongside his younger siblings, part of a group of 80 orcas known as the Southern Residents that spend their summers fishing in the vicinity of Puget Sound. But over the past decade the babysitting gigs have been too few and far between. Not enough young orcas are making it through pregnancy, birth and into adolescence. Toxicity is a problem, as it is for all the world’s large marine mammals. But lack of food—Chinook salmon—is a death sentence. Acknowledging as much, NOAA put Mike and the rest of the Southern Residents on the Endangered Species list in 2005.


Nat Geo Guest Blog: Breach the Snake River Dams

Posted by Carl Safina, The Safina Center, June 15, 2015

By Kenneth Balcomb, guest essayist

Note: In this guest essay, long-time killer whale researcher Ken Balcomb shows how obsolete but still salmon-killing dams are helping cause the decline of killer whales due to food shortage in the Northwest. The dams do feed us one thing: propaganda. As Ken wrote to me, “I was flabbergasted that the dams are closed to photography, and that their wasteful secret is downplayed in the mainstream propaganda fed to the public.” For more on the dams, see my book Song for the Blue Ocean. For more on Ken and the whales he has spent his life loving and studying, see my soon-to-be-released book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, which will hit bookstores on July 14. — Carl Safina


I have studied the majestic southern resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest for forty years (approximately one productive lifespan – whale or human), during which time much has been learned and shared with the world about this iconic endangered population. They are now arguably the best known whales in the world! But, that was not always the case. The common response in the 1960‘s and 1970‘s to my announcement that I was studying whales was, “Why?” “What good are they?”

My best response was to point out that as top marine predators whales are indicators of the health of that environment in which they live – the ocean – and that is also an environment upon which humans depend. Now, with growing numbers of people appreciating the whales’ natural role in the marine environment, and better understanding their ecological requirement for specific food—Chinook salmon in this case—to survive, the conversation has moved toward a strategy of how best to provide that food. There is currently an active discussion about removal of the Snake River dams to save fish, or whales. The issue of whether dams should be breached to provide this food for the whales has now arrived. Would that be reasonable? Are we sure that will work?


The Daily Astorian: Orcas back at Columbia River as 2015 tracking comes to an end

June 4, 2015 9:39AM

AR-150609894Members of the L pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales came back to the mouth of the Columbia River for Memorial Day weekend.

Satellite tag finally detached, bringing this season's NOAA tracking to an end

CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT, Wash. — Orcas made it back to the vicinity of the Long Beach Peninsula in time for the Memorial Day weekend as this year’s satellite-tracking program came to an end.

“As we sat on the beach on Long Beach Peninsula on Memorial weekend, we saw killer whales fishing just on the other side of the surf. It was very cool,” visitor Geneane Bentley Stahl wrote.

Orca L84, an adult male member of the L pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales usually identified with Puget Sound, along with other family members, made a rapid swim from the west coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island to the Columbia River plume between May 11 and May 17, NOAA Fisheries West Coast-Science & Management reported.

The orcas then went a little farther south for a few days, hunting off Tillamook Head and Clatsop Beach, before returning to the Columbia River on the morning of May 21.

Scientists from Olympia-based Cascadia Research Collective intercepted the whales and observed L84 and a few other members of his pod, or extended family group.

The tag that permitted scientists and the public to keep such close watch on orca movements along the outer coast this winter and spring is designed to eventually fall off, and apparently did so late last month, so this will be this year’s last tracking report.

It has been a fascinating set of sightings. This year at least, all or most of L pod — sometimes joined by members of the K and J pods — spent four months ranging up and down the West Coast between Vancouver Island and northern California. Much of that time was centered in the waters of the Columbia River plume, and the ocean off the mouths of Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor. This year joins 2013 as a successful deployment of the satellite tags; in 2014, the tag came off soon after it was attached to an orca.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation Guest Blog: Southern Resident Orcas and the Snake River

By Dr. Deborah Giles, May 16, 2015

Ten years ago, the Southern Resident orca population was officially listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  In the decade since, the Southern Residents have declined in number in the face of numerous threats and a continually diminishing food source.  The survival of this unique orca population is closely linked to the abundance of their preferred prey – Chinook salmon – and WDC is proud to be part of a developing coalition that is working to save both the Southern Residents and the salmon they need to thrive.  These two species, iconic images in their Pacific Northwest home, and recognized and revered worldwide, are vital parts of their ecosystem, and they are in need of recovery efforts on an ecosystem-wide scale to ensure their future. 


This Whale and Dolphin Conservation guest blog is from Dr. Deborah Giles, a research affiliate with UC Davis who has been studying the Southern Resident killer whales for over a decade.  She is a founding member of the Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists (SSAMN) and the Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative (SRKW CSI).  As part of the coalition, we are working on restoring rivers in the Pacific Northwest, starting with the Snake River – one of the key components for the survival of Chinook salmon and the Southern Residents.

Learn more about Whale and Dolphin Conservation at their website.

What else do the Southern Residents need to survive?  Read on to find out….


Seattle Times: Orca baby boom continues with discovery of fourth calf

orca.calfBy Paige Cornwell  /  March 31, 2015

Whale-watching crews spotted a new baby orca in the Salish Sea on Monday, marking the fourth documented southern-resident killer-whale birth in three months.

Whale-watching crews spotted a new baby orca in the Salish Sea on Monday, marking the fourth documented southern-resident killer-whale birth in three months.

The calf was spotted among the J-pod near Galiano Island, B.C., about noon, according to the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

Researchers spotted the calf while watching the subgroup known as the J16s with its 3-month-old calf, known as J50, according to the association, which represents 29 whale-watch operators in Washington and British Columbia.

“We were assuming we had only the J16s,” naturalist and researcher Jeanne Hyde said in a news release. “And as they passed in front of the boat, I saw a small calf surfacing next to J16 and said ‘there’s the baby.’ But then J50 surfaced behind all the rest.”

The calf has heavy fetal folds, indicating that he or she is a newborn.

The birth brings the endangered killer-whale population to 81. A female calf in the J-pod was spotted in late December and a second calf was spotted in early February.

The third calf, in the L-pod, was observed a few weeks later.

Monday’s sighting hasn’t yet been confirmed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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.


More Articles...

  1. Mar 04, 2015 - Chinook Observer: Animal roundup: Baby orca leads a parade of returning species
  2. Mar 04, 2015 - Chinook Observer: Baby orca in the Columbia River plume this week
  3. Feb 28, 2015 - Guest Opinion: Survival of endangered orcas in the Salish Sea depends on restoring chinook
  4. Feb 24, 2015 - Lewiston Tribune: Whale concerns prompt dam petition
  5. Feb 20, 2015 - Kitsap Sun: K and L pods under observation as they travel south in ocean
  6. Feb 18, 2015 - Islander Weekly: Dam removal initiative finds footing in DC
  7. Dec 22, 2014 - Seattle Times: Ten years after ESA listing, killer whale numbers falling
  8. Dec 16, 2014 - CBS News: Pregnant killer whale J-32 was starving, necropsy reveals
  9. Oct 22, 2014 - Seattle Times: 7-week-old baby orca missing, presumed dead
  10. Jul 07, 2014 - KING 5 TV: Orca expert's dire warning about Puget Sound orcas
  11. Feb 03, 2014 - New study connects Puget Sound orcas and Columbia Basin salmon
  12. Jan 15, 2014 - Orca advocates, businesses and scientists call on Governor Inslee to take action to rebuild endangered chinook salmon stocks
  13. Apr 10, 2013 - Watching Our Waterways: Orca tracking project comes to an end for now
  14. Mar 05, 2013 - Revealing new data shows killer whales' affinity for the Columbia River mouth
  15. Jun 21, 2010 - June is Orca Month - Check out the new video on salmon and orcas
  16. Dec 29, 2009 - Orcas and Salmon Roundup by Howard Garrett: Will The Present Administration Act In Behalf Of Orcas And Salmon?
  17. Dec 01, 2009 - "Commercial Fisheries, Salmon, and Orcas" - by Candace Calloway Whiting in the Seattle PI's City Brights
  18. Nov 17, 2009 - "River of Renewal"- Salmon, Dams, Orcas, and You
  19. Jun 10, 2009 - Orca Awareness Month
  20. Mar 03, 2009 - Saving Snake River salmon will save Puget Sound killer whales
  21. May 02, 2008 - Seattle Times Guest columnists: Connect the dots to save orcas, salmon
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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