Kathleen Callaghy

Everything You Need to Know About These Endangered Whales

There are just over 70 left. Gliding through the waters of the West Coast is a unique and stunning cetacean, one that is in danger of disappearing forever. Southern Resident killer whales are the most critically endangered orcas in the world. They are currently protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, U.S. Endangered Species Act and Washington state’s ESA.  

Unfortunately, the last two decades have shown us these protections are not enough to protect these stunning whales. The Southern Residents continue to decline with new calves sometimes not making it to their first year. It’s going to take the collective effort of federal authorities, as well each state whose waters provide habitat to these orcas to step up. As we applaud Oregon for voting to increasing state protections, let's take a tour through some of our recent stories on the Southern Residents.

A family group of Southern Resident orcas chasing a salmon. Credit: NOAA/SWFSC, SR3 and the Coastal Ocean Research Institute NMFS permit #19091

Meet the Southern Resident Orcas 

The Southern Residents have foraged the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest for millennia. These long-lived whales have a unique culture and language, and strong family ties. Elder matriarchs pass knowledge and skills down to younger generations, who do the same in turn. 

Orcas are sophisticated marine mammals. In fact, some parts of their brains — those that trigger language, emotion and memory — are more developed than human brains! Knowing what we do now about the legacies of generational trauma that can stem from violent human-related conflict, it’s heartbreaking to imagine how the Southern Residents might remember the captures and deaths of dozens of family members 50 years ago and how it’s impacting them today.

Read The Legacy of the Southern Resident Orca to learn more about these orcas’ struggles and the work Defenders is doing to ensure their legacy continues. 

Southern Residents and Salmon: Inextricably Linked  

Southern Resident orcas live where their primary food, Chinook salmon, swim. Their core summer habitat is in the Salish Sea, which runs between British Columbia, Canada and Washington state. They also regularly forage off the Oregon coast and migrate to their southernmost feeding grounds in California’s Monterey Bay. 

Young orca chases a chinook salmon, San Juan Island
Holly Fearnbach and Lance Barrett-Lennard/NOAA permit #19091
A young Southern Resident orca chases a chinook salmon in the Salish Sea. Credit: Holly Fearnbach and Lance Barrett-Lennard/NOAA permit #19091

These ancient migration patterns might be shifting. The Southern Residents are struggling to forage for dwindling populations of Chinook, several populations of which are also endangered. Columbia River Basin Chinook, for example, migrate up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to tributary streams in northeast Oregon and central Idaho to spawn. Tragically, this critical sea-to-stream migration has been severely hindered by federal dams along the rivers. What’s more, the dams’ construction alone destroyed and altered salmon habitat. With less and fragmented habitat, the salmon are struggling to survive. 

Read more about this vital relationship and the threats to both species in this Sea to Stream story

2018.08.04 - Southern Resident Orcas play in Salish Sea - British Columbia, Canada - Richard Ellis - Alamy Stock Photo
Richard Ellis / Alamy Stock Photo
Southern Resident orcas in the J Pod play in the Salish Sea at sunset off Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Credit: Richard Ellis / Alamy Stock Photo

Three Main Threats 

It’s scary. With so few individuals left, a single catastrophic event, like an oil spill, could completely wipe out the Southern Residents forever. However, there are three main threats we can address to potentially turn the tide for this population: prey scarcity, toxic pollutants and disturbance from humans, including vessels and noise. 

While the federal government and Washington state have taken some action to address these threats, the Southern Residents are Oregon’s orcas too. Read more about the three threats, what Oregon is doing to help and what the state still needs to do in this informative blog.  

Protections like the Endangered Species Act can help orca whales, but it’s going to take the collective effort of federal authorities, as well as each state whose waters provide habitat to these orcas to step up.

Help Southern Resident Orcas 

To save the whales, we must all play a part. From reducing your stormwater and carbon footprints to planting a raingarden, there are countless ways people all over the country can help (here are the top 10!). And, if you are able, consider supporting organizations like Defenders that are tirelessly working to save these critically endangered orcas. 

This blog was updated to include the Feb. 16, 2024, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission vote to protect Southern Resident orcas under the state’s Endangered Species Act.


Kathleen Callaghy

Kathleen Callaghy

Northwest Representative
As a Representative for the Northwest field team, Kathleen leads Defenders’ policy engagement on endangered species in Washington State, working with local policymakers and coalition partners on the recovery of southern resident orcas, salmon, and grizzly bears.

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