Southern resident orcas are a unique population of orcas in the Pacific Northwest that are genetically and behaviorally distinct from other killer whales.

Why are southern resident orcas endangered?

Due to declines of their primary prey, chinook salmon, the southern resident population has been decreasing for years. Large dams, like those on the Snake River, and the destruction of salmon habitat have caused salmon stocks throughout the Northwest to either plummet or vanish, leaving orcas with less and less to eat.

Today, these orcas are slowly starving to death. On a collision course with extinction, southern residents are also dealing with noise from ship traffic and toxic pollution. Underwater noise from boats disrupt the orcas’ echolocation and pollution from old vessels and stormwater runoff contaminate the salmon that the orcas eat. As the whales eat these polluted salmon, they accumulate toxic chemicals in their bodies, which can make them sick.

Defenders' Impact

Defenders of Wildlife:

  • Advocates to remove the four lower Snake River dams, which would restore a critical salmon run.
  • Works to secure funding for critical state and federal programs like the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Geographic Area Program that protect and restore salmon habitat and water quality.
  • Launched a new coexistence program in 2017 called Orcas Love Raingardens. The goal of this program is to promote raingardens at public schools and parks to reduce the amount of polluted stormwater reaching our local waterways, salmon, and orcas. These raingardens are a wonderful opportunity to familiarize residents and students in communities without regular access to the outdoors with orcas, salmon and the connections between humans and ecosystems.
  • Advances science-based solutions as a member of several state-level initiatives, such as Governor Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force and the Puget Sound Partnership’s Stormwater Strategic Initiative Advisory Team.


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The three main threats to southern resident orcas are lack of prey (chinook salmon), toxic pollution and disturbance from vessels.

Protection Status
Endangered Species Act
IUCN Red List
 Not Listed

The southern resident distinct population segment (DPS) is listed as endangered.

Southern resident orcas are data deficient under the IUCN red list.

What You Can Do

Limit chemical use and plant a raingarden to reduce stormwater runoff. Go solar to reduce the Pacific Northwest’s reliance on hydropower. Volunteer to restore salmon habitat.  

Latin Name
Orcinus orca
21-23 feet long, 7 to 10 tons
Males can live 50-60 years and females for 90 years or more. The oldest orca ever known was Granny (J2), who was estimated to be over 100 years old when she died.

The mouths of large West Coast rivers, like the Columbia and Fraser rivers, are especially important habitat for southern resident orcas due to the concentration of salmon. Southern resident orcas are a unique group of orcas that spend over half the year in the Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. For the other half, they are found foraging for salmon along the west coast as far south as Monterey Bay.


There are 75 southern resident orcas left in three pods: J, K and L.


Pods usually consist of 5 - 30 whales, although some pods may combine to form a group of 100 or more. Orcas establish social hierarchies, and pods are led by non-reproductive older females, who often teach hunting skills and help feed younger relatives. Orcas have a complex form of communication with different dialects from one pod to another.


Gestation is 13 to 16 months. A calf is born in autumn weighing almost 400 pounds and measuring up to seven feet in length. Calves will remain with their mothers for at least two years.


Southern resident orcas’ diets consist of 90% salmon, the majority of which are chinook salmon.


A family group of southern resident orcas chasing a salmon - Image taken from an unmanned hexacopter at more than100ft - NOAA SWFSC, SR3 and the Coastal Ocean Research Institute - NMFS permit #19091 (1).jpg

Clean Water, Healthy Futures: Orca Month Targets Toxics

May 22, 2024 – Volunteers and advocates across Washington will speak out against toxic pollutants that harm orcas, salmon and people during Orca Action Month

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