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.

Seattle Times Guest Opinion: Hungry killer whales waiting for Columbia River salmon

orca eating salmon CFWRMarch 31, 2016

By Deborah A. Giles, Giulia Good Stefani

Special to The Times

RIGHT now, southern-resident killer whales circle the waters off the mouth of the Columbia River eager to score their favorite meal — a fat spring chinook salmon. It’s late March and the Pacific Northwest’s rivers should be a surge of snowmelt and salmon. But they aren’t.

The southern-resident killer whales are on the brink of extinction because they can’t find enough food. With eight new calves — the biggest baby boom this population has seen in almost 40 years — the moment to help our iconic blackfish is today.

What can we do? The whales are showing us: We need to focus on Columbia Basin salmon.

Last summer was a disaster for salmon and a shocking look into the possible future of Columbia and Snake River fisheries. Last July, reports emerged that more than a quarter million sockeye returning from the ocean had died as a result of high water temperatures in the Columbia and Snake rivers. In the end, 96 percent of returning endangered Snake River sockeye died before reaching Lower Granite Dam.


Seattle Times: Puget Sound orca numbers rise fast after 30-year low in 2014

After nine births, Southern-resident orcas in Puget Sound number 85.

By Evan Bush , Seattle Times staff reporter
January 20, 2016 just over a year, Puget Sound has welcomed nine baby Southern-resident orcas to the fold, as the pod continues to rebound from 30-year-low numbers reported at the end of 2014.

The newest members of the J and L pods, which inhabit Washington’s inland waters along with the K pod, face myriad hazards, including pollution, busy shipping traffic and a threatened food supply.

The cetaceans have been listed since 2005 for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Chinook salmon, the orcas’ favorite food, are also listed under the ESA.

In photos taken from a drone, released last fall, the whales appear to be in good health:

Evan Bush: 206-464-2253 or

on Twitter: @EvanBush.

CBC: Orca baby boom: 7th calf born to endangered southern resident population

New calf is believed to be the first offspring of 12-year-old orca L-103

Dec 05, 2015

orca-calf-1L-123 is the seventh calf born the endangered southern resident whale population. (Photo: Mark Malleson)

The Center for Whale Research says yet another orca calf has been spotted swimming with the southern resident killer whale population.

This is the seventh new calf born to the endangered population of cetaceans in the last 12 months.

L123 is the first calf born to 12-year-old L103. (Mark Malleson)

The young orca was photographed in November, but due to poor visibility and unfavourable sea conditions, it took several weeks to confirm that there was indeed a new calf in L pod.

Read more... To save the orcas, do we need to demolish dams?

orca.kitsapSunday 15, November 2015
By Daniel Jack Chasan  

The show is over — at least it’s almost over. SeaWorld has announced that next year, it will phase out its killer whale performances in San Diego. The theme park has been under fire — and, perhaps more importantly, losing visitors — ever since the 2013 movie Blackfish documented its abusive treatment of captive killer whales.

But the whales – endangered Puget Sound orcas, if you prefer – need more than just to be freed from captivity. Not surprisingly, they need to eat.

Specifically, they need chinook salmon, says Carl Safina, a former National Audubon Society vice-president for marine conservation who hosted the PBS series entitled Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina. And in order to get more threatened, endangered and otherwise diminished chinook into the water, he says, we’ll need to breach the four lower Snake River Dams.

* * *

Safina laid all this out one night last month at the Seattle Aquarium, where he was the keynote speaker at an unveiling of the Orca-Salmon Alliance, a coalition of regional and national environmental groups formed to “prevent the extinction of the Southern Resident Killer Whales by recovering the wild Chinook populations upon which the whales depend.” Member groups include Earthjustice, Save Our Wild Salmon, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council.


Huff Post: Newborn Orca 'Baby Boom' Depends Upon Our Breaching Deadbeat Dams

By Brenda Peterson
November 2, 2015

It's rare with any endangered species to rejoice--but the birth of six new orca whale calves this year to the J, K, and L pods has the Pacific Northwest breaching for joy. In any culture, we celebrate long-awaited births with gifts. What can we offer these orca families to commemorate their newborns, this happy "baby boom" after three years of heart-breaking losses of their calves? We can finally make good our government promises by tearing down the Snake River dams and so help nourish orcas with the Chinook salmon they need to thrive.

"The Class of 2015," these new orca calves are dubbed as we welcomed the sixth baby orca, J53, whose mother is a 38-year-old grandmother in J pod. The J pod matriarch, Granny (J2), is 104. Orca families are matrilineal; new research reveals that orca mothers live longer after menopause because "the presence of mothers ensured greater survival of adult sons to breeding age." Like humans, orcas have strong family societies, cooperative hunting, and complex communication skills.


These newborn orca calves, including several males, will never leave their mothers; and this profound life-long bond is obvious when watching how closely orcas swim, bodies almost touching. Elder matriarchs, like Granny (J2) lead the J, K, and L pods and teach their newborns to navigate the many dangers--busy shipping lanes, pollution, dwindling fish stocks, and military sonar. But even centurion orcas cannot give these newborns what's most crucial for their survival: the nutrient-rich, fatty Chinook salmon. Only we can restore their salmon.

"We know these orcas are hungry," Joseph Bogaard, of Save Our Wild Salmon.

Bogaard, along with other salmon and orca advocates, are hoping to renew traditional salmon runs for these highly endangered orcas by removing four dams on the lower Snake River. This "largest stronghold for Chinook" on the Columbia River's tributary, the Snake River, would help safeguard this new orca baby boom. A federal judge, James Redden, who presided over fish litigation in the Columbia Basin, has ordered that federal agencies consider demolishing these Snake River dams since 2003. But as yet, agencies have not followed this directive. Nationally, 241 dams have been removed in a growing effort to improve American rivers. The Washington Post reports "Faced with aging infrastructure and declining fish stocks, communities are tearing down dams across the country in key waterways that can generate more economic benefits when they're unfettered than when they're controlled."

Why not also remove these expensive, obsolete "deadbeat dams" on the Snake River? Veteran orca researcher, Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, notes in a National Geographic column, "Even many of the Army Corps of Engineers' internal documents recommend that returning the river to natural or normative conditions may be the only recovery scenario for Snake River fall Chinook salmon."

Balcomb and other researchers, including Orca Network's, Howard Garrett, highlighted an October event, "Intertwined Fates: The Orca-Salmon Connection." Joining together the orca and salmon scientists and advocates, as Howard Garrett explains. First: to remove the Snake River dams and "open 140 miles of riverbed and 5,500 miles of upstream habitat for salmon." Garrett notes that unlike deep-ocean transient orcas, who prey upon seals or other marine mammals, the Southern Resident orcas only eat fish. Eighty percent of their diet is salmon.

There is a growing and urgent movement to bring down the Snake River dams. A popular petition sponsored by the Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative urges the federal government and Congress to immediately "remove these concrete barriers to the orcas' continued survival." A popular Twitter campaign #FREEtheSNAKE inspired a flotilla of hundreds of kayak protesters. A fascinating YouTube video "Free the Snake: Restoring America's Greatest Salmon River," shows why restoring rivers, the "circulatory system" of our lands, is vital not only to salmon and orcas, but to our shared land and sea habitats.

"Large fish runs, historically in Northwest, are like a nitrogen pump scavenging food from the oceans and bringing it back on land," says University of Washington's David Montgomery. "Anything that blocks a river, like a dam does, limits their access to part of their world that salmon need to complete their life cycle. "Voice of the Orcas" and Blackfish cast member, Dr. Jeffrey Ventre adds "The science is clear: a healthy salmon fishery feeds people, bears, and killer whales. Breach the Snake River dams and let nature heal itself. No fish, no blackfish."

Restoring these once-generous salmon runs not only saves orcas and salmon, it also helps protect us on land and sea from global climate change. Like salmon, orcas carry nutrients from our waters deep inland. A new study in Science Daily reports, "in the past, this chain of whales, seabirds, migratory fish, and large land mammals transported far greater amounts of nutrients than they do today." These nutrients carried in feces kept the whole planet fertile. When we disrupt the earth's nutrient cycle by killing whales and destroying salmon, "this broken global cycle may weaken ecosystem health, fisheries, and agriculture."

Chief Seattle said, "All things are connected, like the blood that unites one family." In the 21st century, we are just beginning to truly understand this profound connection between ourselves and all the animals sharing our habitat.

As we welcome these newborn orcas and the nourishing natural cycles that will also benefit our own children, let us sing and bring the birthday gift of breaching these deadbeat dams. For centuries Native Peoples have sung and danced to celebrate the orcas, these "People Under the Sea." Every summer, many people travel to the San Juans, home of the Southern Resident orcas, to sing to them at Lime Kiln Point. Watch this inspiring video of OrcaSing-- when the J, K, and L pods actually joine their vocalizations with the human choir--and take a moment to sign the petition to bring down the dams and feed the orcas. Think of it as a birthday gift and a good meal for hungry newborns.

Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author of 18 books including Sightings: The Gray Whale's Mysterious Journey and Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond.

Daily Astorian Editorial: Orcas growing factor in Columbia River salmon management

orca.drone1October 26, 2015
An unfortunate fact of life for orcas — and everything else that relies on salmon — is that runs fluctuate.
Iconic Northwest species enters our waters

There was fascinating news last week about southern resident killer whales that have an extensive connection to the Columbia River. These scientific findings could have a major impact on salmon management and the hydroelectric system.

For many years there were occasional reports of orcas being seen by fishermen working offshore in the Columbia River plume. Starting in 2013, a satellite-tracking program showed how they also range up and down the outer coast. They appear to bide their time, waiting for returning Chinook salmon to begin congregating near the Columbia’s mouth.

Last week’s most attention-grabbing orca news involved a different new technology — use of a camera drone this fall to conduct a thorough survey of the J, K and L pods in Washington’s Puget Sound. Photos reveal the orcas’ everyday behavior, without the drone appearing to disturb them in any way. The 82 famous killer whales are doing very well, with new 2015 calves fattening and additional females showing signs of pregnancy. This is extraordinarily promising news for animals that are counted among the eight most endangered species in the U.S.


More Articles...

  1. Oct 22, 2015 - KOMO TV: Interview with Dr. Carl Safina on the Orca-Salmon Connection
  2. Oct 22, 2015 - Seattle Times: Puget Sound’s killer whales looking good
  3. Oct 08, 2015 - Skagit Valley Herald: New alliance has big goals for salmon, orca recovery
  4. Aug 21, 2015 - Patagonia's The Cleanest Line: Save Money, Save Salmon, Save Mike: Free the Snake
  5. Jun 17, 2015 - Nat Geo Guest Blog: Breach the Snake River Dams
  6. Jun 05, 2015 - The Daily Astorian: Orcas back at Columbia River as 2015 tracking ends
  7. May 21, 2015 - WDC Guest Blog: Southern Resident Orcas and the Snake River
  8. Apr 01, 2015 - Seattle Times: Orca baby boom continues with discovery of fourth calf
  9. Mar 04, 2015 - Seattle Times: Researchers tracking killer whales took this video of a new calf from the endangered orca population
  10. Mar 04, 2015 - Chinook Observer: Animal roundup: Baby orca leads a parade of returning species
  11. Mar 04, 2015 - Chinook Observer: Baby orca in the Columbia River plume this week
  12. Feb 28, 2015 - Guest Opinion: Survival of endangered orcas in the Salish Sea depends on restoring chinook
  13. Feb 24, 2015 - Lewiston Tribune: Whale concerns prompt dam petition
  14. Feb 20, 2015 - Kitsap Sun: K and L pods under observation as they travel south in ocean
  15. Feb 18, 2015 - Islander Weekly: Dam removal initiative finds footing in DC
  16. Dec 22, 2014 - Seattle Times: Ten years after ESA listing, killer whale numbers falling
  17. Dec 16, 2014 - CBS News: Pregnant killer whale J-32 was starving, necropsy reveals
  18. Oct 22, 2014 - Seattle Times: 7-week-old baby orca missing, presumed dead
  19. Jul 07, 2014 - KING 5 TV: Orca expert's dire warning about Puget Sound orcas
  20. Feb 03, 2014 - New study connects Puget Sound orcas and Columbia Basin salmon
  21. Jan 15, 2014 - Orca advocates, businesses and scientists call on Governor Inslee to take action to rebuild endangered chinook salmon stocks
  22. Apr 10, 2013 - Watching Our Waterways: Orca tracking project comes to an end for now
  23. Mar 05, 2013 - Revealing new data shows killer whales' affinity for the Columbia River mouth
  24. Jun 21, 2010 - June is Orca Month - Check out the new video on salmon and orcas
  25. Dec 29, 2009 - Orcas and Salmon Roundup by Howard Garrett: Will The Present Administration Act In Behalf Of Orcas And Salmon?
  26. Dec 01, 2009 - "Commercial Fisheries, Salmon, and Orcas" - by Candace Calloway Whiting in the Seattle PI's City Brights
  27. Nov 17, 2009 - "River of Renewal"- Salmon, Dams, Orcas, and You
  28. Jun 10, 2009 - Orca Awareness Month
  29. Mar 03, 2009 - Saving Snake River salmon will save Puget Sound killer whales
  30. 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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