Southern Resident Orcas Move One Step Closer To Receiving Endangered Species Act Protection In Oregon

On Friday, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to advance a petition seeking to protect southern resident orcas under the state Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The petition was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

In the coming months, the commission will conduct a public rulemaking process and decide whether to protect the orcas under state law. Only 73 southern resident orcas remain alive, and their numbers have decreased in recent years. While they are protected under the federal ESA, they are still threatened by dwindling salmon runs, pollution and vessel traffic.

“These beloved orcas are on the brink of extinction and need and deserve all the help we can give,” Kathleen Callaghy, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. “We are happy this petition is moving forward. It is a scientifically sound and collaborative way of formalizing Oregon’s commitments to their recovery.”

Quinn Read, Oregon policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity agrees, stating that, “It is about time.”

Southern resident orcas are recognized by their unique and striking black and white coloration and their history in popular culture. These orcas have an extensive range, which includes the inland and coastal waters of Washington and the coastal waters of Oregon and California.

The mouth of the Columbia River on Oregon’s northern border is a crucial foraging area for the whales. More than half of the chinook salmon consumed while they are in coastal waters can be traced to the Columbia Basin.

The Southern residents even have their own dialect, which is unique among orcas. They feed almost exclusively on chinook salmon, which are also experiencing population declines because of dams, habitat destruction and other issues.

“The southern residents regularly forage for chinook salmon off the Oregon coast. Oregon is part of their home,” explained Colleen Weiler with Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “There is still a lot of work to be done for Oregon to put meaningful recovery measures in place, but this is the much-needed first step, and we thank the commission for recognizing this opportunity for Oregon to be part of saving the southern residents.”

Southern resident orcas are also protected under Washington state’s Endangered Species Act.

Oregon state’s listing would require the development of a state endangered species management plan, which would spur coordination among relevant state agencies and the development of concrete actions to address the primary threats to orcas in Oregon.

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