southern residents


After the orca captures in the Pacific Northwest ended in 1976, the National Marine Fisheries Service hired marine biologist Ken Balcomb to do a population survey of the southern resident orca.  Using the new science of photo ID, he estimated a population of 68-71 orca, with at least 40% of the population having been captured or killed. The population rebounded and peaked at 98 whales in 1995, but has since been in decline.  In 2005, the southern resident orca were listed as endangered by the US federal government, and their numbers continued to decline.

J32 Rhapsody.jpg

The death of J32, Rhapsody, in December 2014, illustrated the primary cause of the decline – lack of the orca’s primary food source, chinook salmon.  A necropsy of J32 showed she had a near term fetus in her uterus, and the report by Ken Balcomb stated, “her blubber layer was thin and dry of oil consistent with inadequate diet for an extended period of time.”

In 2015 hopes were raised with a “baby boom” of eight calves born in a 12 month period, raising the population to 85.  But the next year most had died along with the beloved matriarch, J2 Granny, who was believed to be over 100 years old.

J2 Granny.jpg

A recent study reported that 69% of pregnancies of southern resident orcas end in failure, with one third aborted in late pregnancy.  The two main causes are believed to be: 1) that the orca are starving from lack of salmon, 2) that high toxin loads such as DDT, PCB, PBDE, which depress immune systems and negatively impact reproduction and are stored in the blubber, are released into their systems as the orcas metabolize their blubber.

Another threat is from ship strikes: J34 Double Stuff, a young male, was found dead in December 2016 with the necropsy showing “blunt force trauma” probably from a vessel strike.

This danger will grow exponentially if the Kinder Morgan tar sands pipeline expansion into Vancouver is built. It would result in a seven-fold increase in huge oil tanker traffic going directly through the southern resident orca habitat of Haro Strait.  

In addition, the constant swarm of whale watch boats and other boat traffic in the orca habitat is a stressor for the whales.  Studies have shown that with increase boat noise, there is an increase in orca traveling and a decrease in feeding. A 2017 study by the Vancouver Port Authority found a 20-23% loss of foraging time or about five hours per day for the Southern Resident Killer Whales from combined whale watch and commercial boat traffic.

The orca population trend in the past two years of 2016-17 is disastrous: no new births and the deaths of 10 orcas.

In March 2018, Governor Jay Inslee of the State of Washington issued an executive order to protect the southern resident orca and chinook salmon, and created a task force to propose funding and legislation.  The first report is due November 1, 2018.

In June 2018, another southern resident orca, L92 Crewser, was reported missing and presumed dead, bringing the number down to only 75 whales.  In response, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal notice against the Trump Administration saying they are unlawfully delaying critical habitat designation of the west coast of US as critical habitat designation for the southern resident orcas as was agreed in 2017 by National Marine Fisheries Service.


These are positive steps, but it is not nearly enough to address the emergency, and the real threat of the extinction of the southern resident orca.

The southern resident orca are essentially starving to death from lack of chinook salmon which is 80% of their food source.  The David Suzuki Foundation is calling for “Emergency Orders” under the “species At Risk Act” in Canada to save the southern resident orca from extinction. The highest priority would be restoring the Fraser River chinook salmon.  Measures would include limits on chinook salmon fishing, orca feeding refugees, speed limits and areas of commercial shipping, and restrictions on whale watch boats.

This NOAA study gives a good history and summary of the plight of the southern residents:

Habitat restoration is of prime importance to restore salmon and reduce toxic runoff of toxics from cities, industry and farmlands. This includes protection of creeks, rivers and wetlands, especially of major spawning rivers such as the Fraser and Skagit.

Two of the three Southern Resident Orca pods (K and L, J pod tends to stay north) travel south along the coast into California in winter months in search of salmon. Salmon stocks have been seriously depleted here too, and the best way to restore salmon is to remove dams that have blocked hundreds of miles of spawning rivers and streams.          



Roughly half of the southern resident orca salmon diet have traditionally come from the Columbia River. But these salmon runs have been heavily depleted, and only 1% of the major tributary Snake River salmon make it home to their spawning grounds.  This is primarily because their migration is blocked by the four lower Snake River dams.

The Natural Resource Defense Council writes, “The single best thing we could do to save our region’s endangered salmon and the last 76 (now 75) Southern Resident killer whales is to retire the four lower Snake River dams. The pressure is mounting on those dams to come down.”

It is estimated that half a million to one million salmon could be saved yearly by dam removal and restoring the 140 miles of river to the cold water spawning grounds.

Map showing the locations of the four Lower Snake River dams. There are also eleven dams on the mainstem Columbia River in Oregon and Washington.  Credit: Columbia River Keeper.


Photo by Michael Reppy

Photo by Michael Reppy

Before the dams were built, (Copco 1, was built in 1918) it is estimated that 100,000 spring Chinook spawned in the river, now only 4,000 spawn below the Iron Gate Dam. Besides blocking salmon spawning, the reservoirs behind the dams have silted up and become polluted with toxic slime.  

There is great hope now that four dams will be removed beginning in 2021, opening up 400 miles of mainstream and tributaries for salmon. All parties have agreed, including PacifiCorp, which owns the dams, and will transfer dam licenses to newly created entity, Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC).

Toxic Slime behind Iron Gate Dam.jpg

Just this June 2018, KRRC released a 2,300 page “Definite Plan for The Lower Klamath Project” outlining in detail the dam removal project.  The plan must be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and by an independent Board of Consultants. Then the project will proceed, and in January 2021 the water in the four dams will be drawn down, the dams then removed and the land restored. The project will be funded primarily by $200 million from PacifiCorp, and $250 million from proposition 1, a water bond passed in California in 2014.


The 2012-2014 removal of two dams on the Elwha River in Washington’s Olympic peninsula, along with habitat restoration, showed how rapid nature recovers if given a chance.  Over 4,000 salmon returned above the Elwha Dam the first year, and by 2016, chinook, coho and sockeye salmon were spawning above the site of the Glines Canyon Dam.

Photo by Micheal Reppy

Photo by Micheal Reppy


The proposed expansion of the existing Trans-Mountain Pipeline from 300,000 barrels/day to 890,000 barrels/day bringing the highly polluting tar sands oil from Alberta to Vancouver would increase oil tanker traffic seven fold (5 per month to 34 per month) through the Haro Strait, a major habitat for the southern resident orcas.  The existing pipeline brings tar sands oil to four refineries in Puget Sound area, but the new pipeline is intended for export of this dirty oil to China and Asia. Tar sands oil is diluted bitumen, a very heavy, highly corrosive, volatile oil that must be transported through pipelines at high pressure and temperature and more prone to leaks and explosions.  A tanker oil spill would be nearly impossible to clean up as the oil is very heavy and sinks. In addition, the increase in this huge oil tanker traffic would be very loud and disruptive to the orcas.

An example of how devastating an oil spill can be is the 1984 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.  15 “Chugach” transient orcas were killed and only six remain today. Not one new calf has been born since the spill, and the two females are past reproductive age, so this pod will go extinct!   14 resident orcas were also killed and their pod is still struggling to recover today.

There is a major battle over the Kinder Morgan pipeline between the Canadian federal government and opposition groups such as the new NDP government of British Columbia, First Nations tribes, and environmental groups.  

Premier Trudeau has upped the stakes with his announcement on May 29, 2018 that the federal government will bail out Kinder Morgan by purchasing the pipeline for US $3.5 billion even though construction costs are estimated at greater than US $5.7 billion.  British Columbia premier John Horgan has stated they will “use every tool in our toolbox to stop the project,”and will try to ban any increase of oil shipments out of BC.

Environmental groups Raincoast Conservation and Living Oceans Society have filed suit with their EcoJustice lawyers claiming the National Energy Board did not consider the tanker traffic impact on the Southern Resident Killer Whales on three counts: Ocean noise affecting communication and foraging, shortage of food supply, and contamination from potential oil spills.

First Nations Tribes Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, and Coldwater have filed suit claiming the government failed to properly consult First Nations before approving the pipeline expansion.  They have led demonstrations and a large march in Burnaby on March 10, 2018. 240 people have been arrested since that march many protesting at the Kinder Morgan Westridge Marine Terminal.

March at Burnaby Vancouver.jpg

Major municipalities such as Vancouver, Burnaby, and Victoria also oppose the pipeline.

Despite this opposition, Kinder Morgan, now with the financial bailout by the federal government, has stated they will resume construction of the pipeline in August 2018.  The opposition is not giving up and a major fight is brewing, some saying this will be a “Standing Rock” type showdown!


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