Are Killer Whales Endangered? For the Southern Resident Orcas, the Answer is Yes
Orcas (also known as killer whales) are beloved – and sometimes feared – all over the world. Their striking appearance is instantly recognizable. Some have been immortalized in film, from the heartwarming Free Willy to the infamous Blackfish. Orcas are a big part of West Coast lore, culturally significant for Coastal First Nations, and even lend their name to the biggest of the San Juan Islands (Orcas Island) located off the coast of Washington State.
But some populations – like the Southern Resident orcas – are in danger.
In August 2018 the world was captivated by Tahlequah (J35), a member of the J pod family of Southern Residents, as she carried her dead calf around for 17 days, across more than 1000 miles. The heart-wrenching images of the grieving mother touched many, but also helped to raise awareness about the threat these marine mammals are facing: Extinction.
If you’re wondering, how many orcas are left in the world, the sad answer is – not many. Why are orcas endangered? Before we get to that, let’s find out a bit more about these incredible animals.
Table of Contents
How Many Types of Killer Whale Are There?
Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are actually part of the dolphin family of marine mammals (click here to read more facts about killer whales that might surprise you!). Officially, there is just one species of killer whale, but the species is divided into several distinct populations or “ecotypes”.
These killer whale populations each have unique behaviours and dietary preferences, differ in size, shape and colour, and even use different dialects to communicate! As far as scientists know, the different orca populations do not interact with each other, nor do they interbreed, though their territories often overlap.
There are three populations of killer whale that inhabit Canadian Pacific waters: the Transient (or Bigg’s) Killer Whales, the Offshore Orca population and the Resident Orca population. As with all orca populations, although these three groups roam the same waters, they are socially and genetically distinct.
Resident Orcas vs Transient Orcas: What’s the Difference?
What’s the difference between Resident and Transient killer whales? To the untrained eye, it might be hard to tell the difference between these two orca ecotypes, especially because they are found in the same waters. But they are quite distinct!
Here are some of the ways to tell the difference between Resident orcas vs Transients:
Diet – This is maybe the most striking difference between these populations. While Resident orcas feed almost entirely on salmon, the Transient killer whales hunt other mammals: dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions and even some whales!
Family Unit – Another major difference is their family unit. The Resident killer whales tend to travel and socialize with large groups of their extended families. Transient orcas on the other hand, can’t afford to do so or they would have a hard time hunting that large prey. As a result, Transient pod size tends to be much smaller (up to 6 orcas) than for Residents (up to 50 orcas).
Appearance – The differences are subtle, but Transient and Resident killer whales have some distinguishing characteristics:
Transient killer whales: dorsal fin is more sharply pointed and they have a saddle patch that is always closed (that is, it’s always a solid colour);
Resident killer whales: dorsal fin is more rounded, and their saddle patch can be closed or open, with a bit of black inside the otherwise white or greyish patch.
Vocalizations – Resident orcas and Transients speak different languages!
The Resident Orcas are further divided into the Northern and Southern Resident orcas. These two sub-groups also do not interact with each other or interbreed. It is the Southern Residents that are facing extinction today.
Who Are the Southern Resident Killer Whales?
Orcas are a matriarchal society. The Southern Resident killer whale population is divided into three pods organized along matrilineal lines: The J pod, the K pod, and the L pod.
Each orca pod is a distinct family group, or matriline, led by the oldest female family member. They use different dialects and spend most of their time roaming separately. They do, however, occasionally meet up in the Salish Sea, forming a “super pod” and the animals are known celebrate when they do!
Orcas are highly social animals, and both male and female orcas stay with their natal group for life!
Population Decline Among the Southern Resident Orcas
How many orcas are left in the wild? Among the Southern Residents, not a lot.
The Southern Resident population of orcas has been declining for some time. It is estimated that as many as 69 animals were captured in the 1960s and early 1970s for use in marine mammal parks, decreasing their estimated population at the time by about half (from 140 individuals to just 71).
The Southern Resident population peaked in 1995 when biologists documented a total of 98 individuals. As of December 2020, that number is now around 74.  Low birth rates and high birth mortality are at least partially to blame. There are now less than 30 breeding individuals, and following the “baby boom” of 2014-2016, only three of the six calves born survived. The figures in 2017 were worse, with not a single surviving calf.
On August 6, 2019, it was announced that the J pod orcas’ matriarch, Princess Angeline (J17) passed away, along with two others. She had been named after the daughter of Chief Seattle. Tahlequah – the mother who mourned her calf for 17 days – is Princess Angeline’s oldest daughter, and is expected to become the pod’s newest matriarch. At just 21 years old (in 2019), she would likely be the youngest orca to assume this important role.
Are Orca Whales Endangered?
There is no question that these populations are declining, but can we really say the killer whale is endangered?
Unfortunately, yes. In fact, if we don’t take swift action soon, scientists predict that the Southern Resident population will go extinct before 2035.
Unlike the Northern Residents, the Southern Resident orca has been listed as an endangered species since 2001 in Canada, and since 2005 in the United States. In the US, they were initially considered “threatened” but their status was downgraded to “endangered” in 2015 following a peer review process of the initial biological assessment.
What do these terms mean?
Endangered means a species or population is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
Threatened is used if the species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
In addition to being listed under the Endangered Species Act, all orcas are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. The MMPA further recognizes the AT1 Transient population as depleted.
Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service (part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and informally known as NOAA Fisheries) considers the Southern Resident killer whales as one of the species most at risk for extinction.
In fact, in March of 2018, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed an Executive Order that established a Southern Resident Orca Task Force to develop a long-term action plan to protect, recover and create a sustainable future for this group of killer whales. In late 2019, they released their second annual comprehensive report.
International Recognition of Endangered Orcas
These endangered killer whales are not recognized at the international level, however. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently considers orcas to be “data deficient,” meaning that there isn’t enough information to accurately assess the conservation status of most orca populations. That being said, when the IUCN assessed them in 2013, they estimated that a combination of threats could lead to a 30% reduction in orca populations over the next three generations.
Current Threats: Why Are the Orcas Dying?
Let’s get to the real question: why are killer whales endangered?
Prey depletion and pollution appear to be at the core of the population decline, but orcas face pressure from other threats as well, such as vessel disturbance, hunting and capture.
At the top of the list of problems for Southern Resident killer whales is their food – or lack thereof. As top predators, orcas can consume a lot of food and impacts on their preferred food source – like overfishing and habitat loss – can have disproportionate effects on them.
A series of factors work together to compound the devastating effect on these animals. The crux of the problem is that orcas are picky eaters. At least 80% of their diet is made up of just one species of salmon, Chinook salmon – itself listed as an endangered species in the US.
Chinook salmon are appealing to orcas because they are the largest and fattiest of the salmon species. Moreover, unlike other salmon species, Chinook are known to be available year-round around the mouth of the Columbia and Fraser rivers. The spring salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers are particularly important, allowing the ocean giants to stock up during the summer, prior to the leaner winter months. However, the wild Chinook is now one of the least abundant species of salmon in this area.
The impact on the Southern Resident killer whale population is not just hunger, but also lower birth rates. Nutrient-deprived whales have far fewer offspring (as much as 50% fewer successful pregnancies), putting further stress on the population.
Prey depletion is a problem for other killer whale populations, too. The orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar have a similarly narrow diet, consisting exclusively of endangered bluefin tuna, another species fished almost to extinction. Incidentally, this is the only population of orca that the IUCN has officially labelled as threatened.
Aerial images of adult male Southern Resident killer whale K25, taken in September 2016 (left) and September 2018, the recent image shows him in poorer condition with a noticeably thinner body profile. (NOAA Fisheries)
Aerial images of J17, from September 2015 to May 2019. The latest images show she is emaciated with signs of "peanut head" because of a drastic loss of fat. (Holly Fearnbach and John Durban/NOAA Fisheries)
What's Happening to the Salmon?
Chinook salmon face a triple, human-caused threat: ocean pollution, habitat disruption and overfishing.
Salmon have a fascinating lifecycle. Eggs are laid in freshwater where they hatch, and young salmon fry then embark on a journey to the ocean, ultimately migrating back to their natal stream to spawn. Depending on the species, salmon spend one to eight years in the ocean before starting their return migration. Chinook salmon remain in the nearshore waters during the ocean phase of their lifecycle, making them more vulnerable to water contaminants. Salmon are also increasingly vulnerable to climate change.
Humans like Chinook salmon, too, and our lust for this fish has contributed to its decline over the decades. In Washington, hatchery fish now account for about 75% of all harvested Chinook. Depleted salmon stores in their traditional territory combined with large returns elsewhere could explain the presence of resident killer whales in places like northern California and southeastern Alaska. Travelling ever-increasing distances in search of food puts even more stress on these animals, exacerbating already low reproductive and high mortality rates.
In addition, a series of upstream dams in the Columbia-Snake River watershed have interrupted the salmon’s migratory journey to the ocean. Millions of migrating salmon juveniles die each year as they pass through the four lower Snake River dams on their way to the ocean, meaning fewer fish arrive for the orcas to eat.
Toxic Ocean Pollution
Oil spills, wastewater plants, farm runoff, and sewage are just some of the sources of toxic chemicals that pollute the ocean waterways that orcas call home.
Chemical pollutants affect the animals’ immune, endocrine and reproductive systems. As a top predator, pollutants bioaccumulate in their tissues and cause even greater impact on their health when food sources are depleted and their bodies go into starvation mode.
Of course, pollution also affects their prey, contributing to their own decline, adding to the problem of prey depletion.
Pollution can have lasting effects. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, scientists conducting research in 2005 found that killer whales who lived in Prince William Sound (the oil spill’s epicentre) had still not recovered, 16 years later.
Another chemical threat to more than half the world’s orcas are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – despite the fact that PCBs were officially banned in 1979 in the US, and 1977 in Canada. These are persistent organic pollutants which, despite not being used for decades now, are still routinely found in the environment – and in orca tissue samples.
Their persistence may be due in part to the fact that they are passed from mother to infant, which also puts those infants at greater risk. The Southern Resident and Southern Transient populations have been found to have some of the highest PCB levels.
Right now, Coast Salish tribes on both sides of the US-Canada border fear that the construction of Canada’s Trans Mountain Pipeline will only worsen the ocean pollution problem. The proposed pipeline would triple oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea, further imperiling the already endangered orcas and increasing the risk of a major oil spill.
Like many marine mammals, orcas use echolocation to find their prey. Think of it as reflected sound: they emit sound waves which bounce off objects in the water, helping them to pinpoint their location. It is also how the whales communicate with each other.
Imagine trying to talk to someone across the room at a loud concert. Now imagine that concert is happening everywhere, and there is nowhere to go to get away from the noise.
That’s increasingly what it’s like for a marine mammal living in the ocean these days, as both private and commercial vessel traffic have increased dramatically in recent years, forcing orcas to navigate in busier and louder waters.
Moreover, industrial activities such as dredging, drilling, construction, seismic testing, military sonar and other vessel use of low and mid-frequency sonars, also negatively impact the acoustic environment. The constant disturbance is disrupting communication, reducing the distance over which social groups can detect each other and masking echolocation, making it harder for orcas to find an already scarce prey.
The increasingly loud environment also encourages orcas to “speak” louder – just like we would at a concert. A study conducted off the coast of Puget Sound found that for every one decibel increase in background noise, orcas similarly increased their calls by one decibel. And we all know what that does to us after a concert: we spend the next day recovering, with ringing in our ears and a hoarse throat.
For orcas, it means they spend even more of their precious energy resources trying to communicate or find food. That same Puget Sound study correlated this decibel increase with higher stress levels in individuals, and decreased communication among members of the same pod – in itself a stress-inducing scenario for such social creatures.
Hunting & Capture
As many as 69 killer whales were captured off the coast of British Columbia and Washington State between 1962 and 1977 – about half their estimated population at the time. Though the practice has now been outlawed, the impact of that take on orca populations can still be felt.
And sadly, it still happens elsewhere in the world (according to the IUCN, 21 killer whales were caught in the Sea of Okhotsk between 2012 and 2016). Luckily, there has been a recent movement against keeping orca whales captive, and many aquariums have committed to ending the practice altogether.
Our insatiable desire for wild entertainment doesn’t stop at aquariums, though. Whale watching tours can disrupt orcas’ daily habits, like foraging, especially if they get too close, and fast-moving boats create a risk of vessel strikes.
Commercial whaling is a problem for killer whales, too. Almost 100 killer whales were killed, on average, globally, every year between the 1930s and 1981. Orcas were sometimes killed for food, but oftentimes because fishermen viewed them as competition and a threat to their livelihoods.
We’ve already discussed habitat loss in the context of killer whale prey, but what about killer whale habitat itself?
The Southern Resident orcas were traditionally found in or near the Salish Sea, but these days their range extends from southeastern Alaska all the way to central California. As mentioned earlier, this extension of their range may be related to the lack of wild salmon turning up in their normal range.
The inland waters around Washington State were designated as critical habitat for the Southern Resident orcas by NOAA Fisheries in 2006. Following a petition to increase the area designated as critical habitat for these marine mammals, in 2019 NOAA proposed to modify the designated critical habitat to include the coastal waters of Washington, Oregon and California.
What Can We Do to Protect Southern Resident Killer Whales?
Even if it weren’t enough to want to save the orcas for their own sake, there is another reason to take the fate of the Southern Residents and other orca populations seriously.
Scientists view orcas as an “indicator species” meaning that their health is tied to the health of other animals in the ecosystem – and even the ocean ecosystem as a whole. This is due to their wide range, long lifespans, location at the top of the food chain, as well as their vulnerability to even small changes in the environment.
So what can we do to help protect Southern Resident orcas?
You can’t save something if you don’t understand the root of the problem. As mentioned, the IUCN feels that there is not enough known about orcas – including the Southern Residents – to truly understand the long-term health of their populations.
As a result – we need to do more killer whale research! Thankfully, NOAA is working on that, by spearheading projects involving satellite tracking, pollution measurement and taking biological samples. They are also keeping an eye on feed populations (read: salmon and tuna species) so as to simultaneously tailor conservation measures that will have positive trickle-down effects on the most endangered killer whale populations.
What does conservation involve? It’s a complex web of special designations, laws and policies that work together to keep habitats intact and reduce practices that cause harm using incentives, disincentives and outright deterrents.
In order to be effective, these measures must target the end goal of strengthening orca populations and also those of their prey. Together they aim to create a safe and abundant environment for orcas, free from harm and harassment and full of food!
The Snake River Dams
Access to their preferred food source – Chinook salmon – is one of the major factors affecting the Southern Resident orcas’ survival, and one of the factors affecting the salmon are the Columbia and Snake River dams.
Scientists and conservationists view the dams blocking the spring runs down the Columbia and Snake rivers as the major obstruction to feeding – and thus conserving – the orca population. There are in fact eight dams standing between the juvenile salmon’s place of origin and the Pacific Ocean, but the it’s the lower four dams that, in conservationists’ view, are causing all the problems.
Installing fish ladders hasn’t been enough. The Fish Passage Center has found that removing the dams could lead to a four-fold increase in smolt-to-adult returns of Chinook salmon. In fact, it is estimated that removing these dams could reintroduce 1-2 million more adult Chinook salmon into the ocean waters in Southern Resident orca territory, every year. It would also have the additional benefit of revitalizing 8850 km (5500 mi) of riverine tributaries for salmon spawning, which would, in turn, help produce yet more salmon.
Right now, a coalition of scientists, Indigenous peoples, community groups and lawyers are fighting for the breach of the four federal dams on the Lower Snake River. There has been considerable political opposition to the idea (and some from opposing environmental groups, too, who worry about losing a renewable energy source in the area) so far, despite the fact that the economic viability of the dams has been declining almost since the day they were built. Maybe the time for removal of the Snake River dams has finally come.
Want to help? You can support the Endangered Species Coalition in their advocacy against the Snake River dams.
How You Can Help
Support Sustainable Fishing Practices
You don’t have to become vegan, but you can make smarter choices when it comes to seafood. Always look for sustainably sourced salmon and tuna to ensure you’re not contributing to the problem of prey depletion for orcas.
Volunteer or Donate!
Depending on where you live, you might be able to get involved with a local project to restore salmon habitats. This helps orcas by ensuring a greater abundance of their preferred food source.