orca and calf, © NOAA

June is All About the Orcas

The Pacific Northwest celebrates its Southern Resident orcas – the most endangered community of resident killer whales in the world.

Every June, orcas get special attention in Washington. Orca Month was founded a decade ago by Orca Network to bring together researchers, advocates, and orca lovers to raise awareness of the threats facing these magnificent animals, and provide a community to celebrate orcas of the Salish Sea and west coast. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Orca Month in Washington, and now, thanks to an official proclamation by Governor Kate Brown, Oregon has joined the celebration.

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Orca, © Ronn Maratea

The Pacific Northwest is home to 83 Southern Resident orcas. This fragile population faces many threats, including water pollution, noise and traffic from marine vessels, and a dwindling food supply. Orcas feed primarily on salmon, and require healthy and abundant fish populations to survive. When salmon populations plummet, orcas go hungry and become more vulnerable to the effects of toxins and noise. Unfortunately, Pacific Northwest salmon runs are anything but healthy.

The mighty Columbia, which runs between Washington and Oregon, is the Northwest’s largest river basin, and historically the region’s biggest source of salmon. That makes it the main source of food for Southern Resident orcas in the winter, and a popular feeding ground each spring as Chinook salmon get ready to run up the river to their spawning grounds. Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, are the largest salmon species. For Southern Resident orcas, they are definitely the meal of choice – these fatty, delicious fish make up 80 percent of their diet.

It’s no secret that Pacific Northwest salmon face a load of troubles. Salmon are split up into groups called “runs” based on where they return to spawn, as well as other factors. In the Columbia Basin, more than a dozen runs, including Chinook salmon, are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. They face what people call the 4 H’s: habitat loss, harvest management issues, hatchery issues, and hydro-electric dams.

Chinook Salmon, © Dave BickfordHydro-electric dams on rivers make it difficult, if not impossible, for salmon to travel safely to the ocean or return to spawning areas. Increased development in floodplains, caused by unprecedented population growth in the Pacific Northwest, removes vital spawning and rearing habitat, and reduces water quality. The impacts from habitat loss in the Columbia River are amplified by climate change, which contributes to longer periods of drought, rising water temperatures, and changing precipitation patterns. In addition to these threats to habitat, salmon are compromised by overfishing, disease, and competition and interbreeding with less robust hatchery fish. These troubles are not the Columbia River’s alone. Nearly all salmon populations in river basins within the Southern Resident orca’s range face some, if not all of these threats to their recovery.

For our orcas, less food means less strength and resilience to cope with other threats. When orcas are hungry, their bodies begin to rely on their blubber. But those thick layers of blubber are full of toxins accumulated from swimming and feeding in the region’s polluted waters. So as they use up their blubber stores, those toxins are released into their bodies, causing all kinds of health issues. Hungry orcas are also more vulnerable to watercraft because they spend precious time and energy trying to avoid the vessels instead of foraging. For example, if loud commercial or military vessels are nearby, orcas may have trouble finding fish by echolocation, and need to expend valuable energy ‘yelling’ at each other to communicate.

Because the Columbia River basin is so important for the Southern Residents, Defenders is actively working in the basin to protect and restore salmon runs and vital habitat. Our team is working to curb development of floodplains, which act like nurseries for salmon as they grow and make their way downriver to the ocean. We advocate for responsible management that will decrease mortality of salmon passing through dams on their way to the ocean or on their journey upriver to spawn in their natal stream. And we support removing outdated dams when it makes sense. The Columbia River and its tributaries are one of the most dammed river systems in the U.S. with more than 475 dams acting as barriers to spawning habitat, inundating riverine habitat, or providing extra challenges for fish to migrate. It is time to assess which dams are needed and which can be removed. We need to return some of the Columbia River to the fish that support the Northwest — ecologically, culturally, and economically — and help our orcas at the same time.

The Columbia River basin is key to keeping salmon populations healthy. It will be up to Oregon and Washington to work together to protect salmon – and the orcas that depend on them — so that these species can thrive long into the future. Our 83 wild Southern Resident orcas can bring our states together (though perhaps not during soccer season). They are Pacific Northwest orcas. Just give them some plaid and a Stumptown micro-foam cappuccino. In honor of Orca Month, let’s celebrate the orca, the salmon, and the river that joins us.

Help Protect Orcas

A House Resolution has been introduced by Congressman Denny Heck (D-WA) in an effort to declare June 'National Orca Protection Month' in order to draw public attention to the orcas' plight.

Ask your representative to support this effort! »

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