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Southern Resident Orcas Off Oregon Coast Designated as Endangered by Local Agencies

Published 2/19/24 at 6:35 p.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

(Oregon Coast) – This week, Oregon's Fish and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously to put Southern Resident orcas into the endangered list under Oregon's Endangered Species Act (OESA), creating a step in the right direction for perhaps all regional orcas off the Oregon coast and Washington coast. (Orca photo Josh McInnes / Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries Marine Mammal Research Unit)

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Of all the killer whales we see off the Oregon coast, this set is down to a very few 76 whales spread over a mere three pods. The species is in serious danger, compounded by reproductive issues, inbreeding (because of their small numbers) and the scarcity of Chinook salmon, their preferred prey. Movement and sound from vessels is also pushing them around and increasing levels of pollutants are hindering their survival.

Making their home much of the year up in the Seattle area, Oregon's coastline is a major route for them, although often far offshore. While they have already been listed under federal law as endangered since 2005, this new declaration brings more resources into the struggle to assist them. Oregon waters were designated as a critical habit in 2021, but the OESA guidelines create more tools and methods for action on a local and regional level through Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

Orca expert Josh McInnes (British Columbia's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries Marine Mammal Research Unit and the Oregon Coast Killer Whale Monitoring Program) was one of those who testified at the hearing. His group's Facebook page has been at the forefront of educating and exciting people about regional orca sightings.

He told Oregon Coast Beach Connection these southern residents of the K and L pods consist of about 5% of the sightings recorded in these waters, but it's still an important bellwether for the future of killer whales in the region.

“We have received a few reports of southern resident killer whales off the Oregon coast, but most sightings involve the transient (mammal-eating) form. Both however, occur off the Oregon coast,” McInnes said. “I think this declaration will increase a community awareness of killer whales off the Oregon coast. The Oregon coast is home to a diverse community of killer whales, from three different forms. Resident killer whales that specialize on salmon, transient killer whales that feed on marine mammals, and offshore killer whales that eat sharks and other large fish species. Our research team at the Oregon Coast Killer Whale Monitoring Program is excited to work with the Oregon community to try and unlock the mysteries of killer whales inhabiting this coast.”

Orcas seen near Garibaldi, courtesy Garibaldi Charters

McInnes said that 5% is probably a sizable under-representation, however, as most of these southern orcas are found farther offshore.

The weak population numbers of this species is alarming, he said, and more frustratingly their die-off numbers are really difficult to ascertain.

“Researchers with the Center for Whale Research and NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Washington have been collecting information on southern resident killer whales for several decade,” McInnes said. “However, the population currently sits at 73 whales, with a recently born whale in J pod (J060) dying a few weeks after being reported.”

ODFW's new declaration brings a set of guidelines for regional and local agencies to follow and a list of proposed actions. These include boater education to level off the disturbance to orcas, and even enhancing Chinook salmon production in facilities where the capacity exists. ODFW also said it will “increase efforts to prevent oil and other hazardous material spills.”

There are hopes this new decree will help other orcas, but that remains to be seen.

“We are not sure if this endangered designation will affect all of killer whale populations, since we are still in the infancy of trying to understand the habitat use patterns of killer whales off Oregon,” McInnes said.

This past summer saw some remarkable orca interactions off the coast, including a large pod of orcas making a kill – the first time that had been videoed in this area. Dozens Watch and Document Orcas Attack, Kill Baby Whale on Oregon Coast: More Videos

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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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