Southern Resident Orcas Receive Endangered Species Act Protections In Oregon Aiding In Their Recovery

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted last week to protect Southern Resident orcas under the state’s Endangered Species Act, responding to a February 2023 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

“I’m feeling more confident about the Southern Resident orcas’ recovery now that Oregon is joining this critical all-hands-on-deck effort,” said Brady Bradshaw, oceans campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These struggling whales need the entire Pacific Northwest to work together to bring back a healthy wild Chinook salmon population and strengthen the marine ecosystem. With Oregon at the table, the real work can begin.”

The listing decision requires Oregon to develop an endangered species management plan, which will require state agencies to develop concrete actions that address the primary threats to orcas in Oregon. The petitioners also recommended improvements to the survival guidelines. One of those, aiming to strengthen protections against pollution, was added today by the commission.

Southern Resident orcas are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, as well as under Washington state’s Endangered Species Act, but the population has continued to decline.

“The Oregon ESA listing is a meaningful step toward stronger Southern Resident orca recovery in the Pacific Northwest,” said Kathleen Callaghy, Defenders of Wildlife Northwest representative. “Now the real work begins. State agencies will be taking on an important responsibility and it’s the public’s job to both support and hold them accountable.”

Unlike other orcas, Southern Resident orcas feed almost exclusively on Chinook salmon, which are also experiencing population declines because of dams, habitat destruction, toxic pollution and other issues.

“Southern Resident orcas’ survival as a species depends on Oregon’s inland waterways and resources. At the same time, the residents of Oregon depend on the ecological role whales play in keeping the ocean healthy,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director at Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “Ensuring this iconic species is protected in Oregon is truly a win-win.”

Orcas are recognized by their striking black and white coloration and their history in popular culture. Scientists have observed that Southern Resident orcas have their own dialects and culture, with distinctions between pods.

Although these orcas are known to live in the Puget Sound and coastal waters of Washington state, the Southern Residents also spend considerable time feeding in the inland and 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 that the orcas consume comes from the Columbia Basin.

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