Even After a Decade of Protection, Puget Sound’s Orcas Are Still Struggling

Even though scientists have learned a lot about the Southern Resident orcas since they were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2005, a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows their population still isn’t growing and has raised more questions about their future survival.

In the 1960s, the Southern Residents, which include three distinct pods ( J, K and L pods) numbered at about 140, but captures for public display caused their numbers to drop drastically. By the early 1970s there were only an estimated 71 left. As of last year there were still only 82.

Even with live captures being banned, federal protection and millions spent on research and recovery efforts, they’ve yet to make a comeback.

Recent news about them keeps going from bad to good and back again: from worries that they would have federal protection removed to the sightings of Springer, who was the first orca to be rescued and successfully released and who wasspotted with a calf,and of 103-year-old Granny, who is believed to be the world’s oldest orca, to NOAA’s latest findings and the surrounding questions about whether and how we can help them thrive.

Scientists have answered a few questions about these orcas — including discovering where they go in the winter, how they identify and choose their preferred food and how noise from boats is changing their behavior, among other things — but still aren’t sure why their numbers haven’t increased more.

The Seattle Times notes that they have found that it’s not so much a single issue that can be addressed, as it is a battle against multiple, overlapping threats. The three main problems now are a lack of food, disturbance from boats and a buildup of pollutants in their bodies.

Their favorite food, chinook salmon is also endangered. Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, believes that addressing their food source is what matters most now and that if we want to help orcas recover the focus needs to be on recovering species of salmon they rely on.

Boats are also believed to cause them to hunt less, speed up and burn more energy than they would otherwise, which leaves them using more energy when there’s less food available. Even with rules that prevent boats from coming into 200 yards of them or designated critical habitat, they’re still struggling.

According to NOAA, these orcas are also the most contaminated marine mammals in the world and have been found to have DDT, PCBs and flame retardants in their systems, which have been linked to disease and reproductive problems.

Now, scientists will be working to address these three main issues, while enforcing current regulations, along with taking additional measures to protect them adding steps that range from making sure we’re ready to deal with a catastrophic event like an oil spill and coordinating response efforts to help stranded orcas to working to raise public awareness through education and outreach programs.

Meanwhile, rumors of a potential pregnancy are swirling around Rhapsody, a member of the J pod, leaving orca enthusiasts cautiously optimistic and hopeful that a new addition might be on the way. Howard Garret, founder of the Orca Network, wouldn’t substantiate the rumor, telling the South Whidbey Record that there’s no way to tell short of a physical exam, but he did say she’s the right age and looks a little large.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Angev GERIDONI3 years ago

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Thank you for sharing

Diane L.
Diane L3 years ago

Jennifer H., I disagree. Sea lions are not suffering from a lack of food, quite the opposite. If you're referring to the California Sea Lions gorging themselves at the Bonneville Dam, they're pretty much taking far more than their fair "share" of fish since they don't belong in the Columbia River in the first place. I also disagree about "not telling" anyone if a female is pregnant, since this pod is protected by law and NOBODY would be allowed to capture any of them, especially a calf. A pregnancy would be very welcomed news.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H3 years ago

The problem with the whales is the same as the sea lions. Lack of food, Humans have overfished the salmon along with other issues with the rivers including pollution. But, please, don't tell anyone if any female is pregnant. Unethical companies will want to capture the baby for captivity performances.

Alexandra G.
Alexandra G3 years ago

how sad !!!

Bonnie Bowen
Bonnie Bowen3 years ago


Kenneth Davies
Kenneth Davies3 years ago


Diane L.
Diane L3 years ago

R.K. who has no profile said, ""The Seattle Times notes that they have found that it’s not so much a single issue that can be addressed, as it is a battle against multiple, overlapping threats. The three main problems now are a lack of food, disturbance from boats and a buildup of pollutants in their bodies." *All three main problems directly attributed to Seattle and the sprawling ugly metro areas. Oops, the Seattle Times forgot to mention that."............no, R.K., they didn't fail to mention anything. You just failed to comprehend what was really said and that it's still a guessing game as to why the resident pods have not recovered as much as hoped, but there still IS "hope".

Diane L.
Diane L3 years ago

KING-TV (Seattle) has been airing interviews with a photographer who has been following the resident Orcas for 40 years. This man says that the animals are declining not because of pollution, global warming, whale watching boats, but strictly because they survive almost exclusively on Chinook Salmon, which are not sufficient in numbers for them to live on, and there are no longer females in any of the three pods of reproductive age. There have been no live births in two years of calves that have lived for more than one year. NOAA wants to blame whale watching boats and ships for being too close and are ignoring the real reason............lack of FOOD. Other Orcas live on seals but the Puget Sound Resident Orcas do not. They are the only Orcas that live almost exclusively on salmon. However, he did have "some" good news! He observed what he thinks was a mating of two adults in "L Pod", so maybe in 17 months, there will be a new calf. Glad I was never pregnant for 17 months!

Saman Anees
Saman Anees3 years ago

They are beautiful.... this is sooo sad :(