The black dorsal fin of an orca breaking the surface of the water is a magnificent sight and one we all want our children and grandchildren to witness — to know they are a part of a bigger community.
But the endangered Southern Resident orcas are on the brink of extinction, and they need our help. With only 74 remaining Southern Residents — one of the lowest the population has been in over 30 years — we are in our last chapter of orca recovery efforts to prevent their extinction.
They face three primary threats: exposure to toxic pollution, increasing vessel traffic, and a dwindling supply of Chinook salmon to eat.
These resident orcas rely on the fragile links between healthy eelgrass and kelp beds, abundant herring stocks, thriving salmon populations, and plenty of clean water.
Here’s what RE Sources is doing to strengthen those links and improve conditions for the orcas so they may once again thrive:
When endangered Southern Resident Orca pods lost several family members in 2017 and 2018, bringing the population to a historic low, Governor Inslee convened the Southern Resident Orca Recovery Task Force, charged with developing a plan to keep this iconic species from extinction over its two-year tenure. They released a final set of Year 1 recommended actions in November 2018 and Year 2 recommended actions in November 2019. Read more about our work on the Orca Recovery Task Force.
Toxic pollution in the Salish Sea is one of the biggest threats to salmon and orca recovery. Preventing pollution from getting into our waters is a top focus of the North Sound Baykeeper team. Read more about our pollution prevention and reporting work here.
RE Sources is also working with state and local agencies to clean up legacy toxic sites in Whatcom County. Building on the work we’ve done for decades, we are providing technical support on cleanup plans for toxic sites, pushing for legislation that ensures adequate funding for toxic cleanups, and engaging in rulemaking to strengthen cleanup actions for these sites. Read more about Bellingham Bay’s cleanup process.
RE Sources works to protect Southern Resident orcas’ primary food source, Chinook salmon, some vital populations of which are also endangered or threatened. According to the Center for Whale Research, addressing the Southern Resident orcas’ food source here in the Salish Sea is what matters most now for orca recovery. RE Sources works to recover salmon populations by improving water quality, protecting and restoring fish habitat, improving instream flows, and eliminating threats to salmon survival. Read more about our salmon recovery efforts.
Salmon need plentiful, cold, clean water in creeks and rivers to spawn, which makes our work to ensure Whatcom’s waterways have sufficient flows year-round more urgent than ever. We do this by pushing for state and county planning processes to protect and restore habitat, conserve water, update water rights, and adjust for a warming climate and growing population. Read more about our Water Supply planning efforts.
Of the primary threats facing the Southern Resident orcas, reducing vessel noise and disturbance impacts is the most immediate action we can take to give orcas the space and quiet waters they need to find scarce Chinook salmon to eat. The presence of boats, even quiet ones, changes orca behavior in ways that can make them expend more energy. For example, orcas will avoid boats instead of foraging. The number, proximity, and speed of boats all matter for the level of disturbance and the amount of noise affecting the orcas.
RE Sources educates our communities to urge their legislators to enact vessel traffic limitations through Washington State’s lawmaking process, the annual legislative session. We also engage with the Governor’s Orca Recovery Task Force, and have worked for decades to limit cargo vessels from traversing the Salish Sea by capping fossil fuel export — both through blockading major export projects, and by limiting expansion projects from Whatcom County.
We’re pushing for adoption of local and statewide policies to prevent oil spills that could devastate orcas and their habitat. And we are watchdogging new projects and expansions to prevent increases in fossil fuel shipments through the Salish Sea.
Cherry Point and its eelgrass beds, for example, provide healthy spawning grounds for herring, the favorite food for Chinook salmon, who in turn are the main diet for resident orcas. We are pushing for policies at the county level to protect Cherry Point and to limit vessel noise and traffic.