SAVING THE Southern Resident orca

The charismatic killer whale, or orca, is the totem species of northwest Washington and coastal British Columbia, where its images adorn everything from coffee mugs to long-houses. This intelligent, social predator is known to form lasting social bonds — living in highly organized pods where everyone cares for the young, sick, or injured. But like many endangered species, these groups must learn how to navigate the complicated terrain of the 21st century and the dangers it presents.

The Center has used science and law to save a critically endangered population on the West Coast known as the Southern Resident orcas (also called Puget Sound orcas or, more generally, West Coast orcas). These whales are distinct from all others — genetically unique, with a unique dialect and one of the only orca populations to feed extensively on salmon.

Right now there are as few as 75 of them left on Earth.


When we first began our work defending these whales, we brought together a population ecologist, a toxicologist and an endangered species activist to study the whales' life history, habitat needs, threats and population trends; we also enlisted a lawyer to review legal mandates for the protection of imperiled species. This diverse group produced an important analysis revealing that if the trends of the time were to continue, the population would go extinct within 100 years.

Our science and legal team immediately set to work developing a citizen petition to list Southern Resident orcas under the Endangered Species Act. After the G.W. Bush administration determined that the whale population was in danger of extinction but that this was “not significant" — which drove the Center to file a lawsuit resulting in federal protection. Some critical habitat was set aside and we began developing a recovery plan to ensure the whales' survival, moving on to petition for expanded critical habitat protections to cover these whales' foraging grounds down the coast from Puget Sound. Finally the Fisheries Serives has announced it will make the expansion.


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