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Oregon lists southern resident orcas as endangered species

Members of Puget Sound's south resident orca population.
Members of Puget Sound's south resident orca population.

Southern resident orcas are now listed as endangered under Oregon law, providing additional protections to their struggling population.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on Friday unanimously voted to protect the whales under the Oregon Endangered Species Act, exactly a year after conservation groups petitioned the state. The commission was required to make a determination within a year.

Southern resident orcas are a distinct population of killer whales that travel between southeastern Alaska and central California. There are just about 74 left after one of three calves disappeared in December.

The federal government listed the orcas as endangered in 2005, following Washington in 2004 and Canada in 2001.

During a presentation Thursday, Oregon wildlife staff said the mammals’ main survival threats include lack of prey, noise pollution and environmental contaminants like oil spills.

Southern resident orcas almost entirely rely on salmon, particularly Columbia River Chinook salmon, which make up more than half of their diet when they’re in coastal waters. Like other varieties of salmon, overfishing, dams and loss of habitat decimated their numbers in Oregon and Washington.

Oregon’s orca listing comes with a list of guidelines for state agencies to follow to ensure human activities don’t hinder the whales’ survival. For instance, they require state officials to assess noise pollution when considering projects within the orcas’ habitat off the coast.

Oregon wildlife staff said many of those guidelines overlap with existing federal and state laws. Staff said while the wildlife department could release more hatchery salmon into the ocean to help orcas, it would need significantly more funding and capacity to do so.

“Right now, the department’s capacity for additional hatchery production is very limited,” John North, a deputy administrator with the agency, told commissioners. “Without some additional infrastructure or funding, the best we’re probably looking at is a few tweaks here and there, to be honest.”

North said hatchery releases in the Columbia River and Puget Sound have declined by tens of millions since the 1980s. With the orcas’ new listing, North said the department would assess whether it has the capacity to increase hatchery releases.

Even so, many conservationists at the meeting said hatchery salmon aren’t enough to sustain orcas’ caloric needs, since they’re smaller. They asked the state to focus on improving Chinook salmon protections.

There are about 2,500 orcas in the eastern North Pacific Ocean. They’re split between three ecotypes: resident, transient and offshore. All have different social structures, genetics, body shapes, vocalization patterns and diets.

Resident orcas live in larger, more stable groups than the others. While other orcas primarily feed on marine mammals and sharks, resident orcas rely almost entirely on fish, particularly Pacific salmon.
Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

April Ehrlich began freelancing for Jefferson Public Radio in the fall of 2016, and then officially joined the team as its Morning Edition Host and a Jefferson Exchange producer in August 2017.