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Southern Resident Killer Whales Closer to Local Protected Status Off Oregon Coast

Published 04/28/23 at 5:42 AM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Southern Resident Killer Whales Closer to Local Protected Status Off Oregon Coast

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(Oregon Coast) – One segment of killer whales off the Oregon coast and Washington coast are much closer to being listed as endangered in Oregon. The southern resident killer whale population off the U.S. west coast is already considered endangered by the federal government, and earlier this month the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) Commission accepted a petition to put them under the Oregon Endangered Species Act. (Photo above: some southern resident orcas spotted near Brookings recently, courtesy  Brookings Fishing Charters)

There are only 73 individuals left of this particular breed and group of pods. The southern resident group of orcas is considered at extreme risk, due to a variety of manmade issues that have shrunk the population. Their primary food source is Chinook salmon, and their numbers have been greatly decreased. Also, a high degree of contaminants from pollution and noises from ships are part of the problem – as well as inbreeding that weakens them overall.

With the petition accepted, the next step is talking with various stakeholders and organizations to get input, including the public, affected wildlife and marine agencies and regional tribes.

Southern resident orcas are mostly known for roaming the northern waters around British Columbia, but what many don't know is that they roam the Oregon and Washington coastlines, as well as California waters. In fact, their sightings become a rather big deal on social media, with Facebook groups like Oregon Coast Killer Whale Sightings.

That page was started by researcher Josh McInnes from the University of British Columbia, and he's played an integral part in publicizing and networking regional whale sightings. McInnes has studied the whales closely in many different ways and believes the new designation on top of the federal status is a good idea.

“We know these whales frequent Oregon continental shelf waters and rely on specific Chinook salmon stocks associated with the Columbia River,” he said. “If designated as endangered in Oregon, it would enable potential studies and strategies to be developed to include the necessary habitat that they require.”

Southern resident killer whales are a subset of a larger population of “resident” killer whales that inhabit these waters, including the northern residents and Alaska residents. Orcas are found in all the world's oceans and are segmented into numerous smaller groups, some of which are apparently different species. Each has their own social structure, different behavior, appearance, and certainly genetic makeup.

Courtesy  Brookings Fishing Charters

In 2022, the season of killer whale sightings off the Oregon coast began with one pod of southern residents, which was considered noteworthy to whale researchers, including McInnes.

This time of year – again – has seen a major uptick in orca sightings in the region, and the southern residents were among the first to be spotted (seen above around Brookings).

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Below: orcas seen in 2015 by Whale's Tail Charters off Depoe Bay

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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