Good news for Puget Sound's Southern Resident orca population

Puget Sound is the summering ground for the Southern Resident orca population of about 80 killer whales, listed as endangered under the ESA since 2005. Puget Sound is the summering ground for the Southern Resident orca population of about 80 killer whales, listed as endangered under the ESA since 2005.

However, in the face of a petition for de-listing NOAA has made a determination that Southern Resident orcas are indeed a distinct population group that requires protection.

NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman describes how this subset of killer whales has “...their own language, own food source. They don't interbreed with other groups of killer whales” and therefore they meet the legal standard for a distinct population group that can be classified as endangered, in contrast to the lower risk status of other Eastern North Pacific orca whales.

These whales need protection from a variety of threats in the area, namely poor water quality and vessel congestion and noise from summer boat traffic, and also a limited food stock. Luckily, however, NOAA agrees that these whales still deserve protection even in the face of industrial pressure from Californian farmers.

This exciting news follows on a previous victory in Canada, calling for increased protection of this population off the coast of British Columbia.

In 2010, I went whale watching off San Juan Island with the hopes of seeing some of these same orcas. My sister-in-law was attending the University of Washington, and her graduation provided my husband and me with a great reason to travel to Seattle.

Having grown up on the east coast, I can count the number of trips I’ve taken to the west coast on one hand. That being said it was a special occasion, and we were ready to take in as much of the city, ocean, and parks as we could manage.

Being the nature lover that I am, my husband and I purchased tickets for the group of us to go on a kayak whale watching tour.

After an early morning drive, and ferry ride to the island, we were set for a day of paddling, good food, and good weather.

The tour group got us set up in tandem kayaks and we were off, heading south along the coast of San Juan Island.

We had a few sightings of bald eagles before lunch and on our return trip spotted some curious seals swimming along the shore. We even tried a taste of the floating kelp, probably not the best idea to eat something pulled straight from the sea, but no harm no foul - and if you’re wondering, it mostly just tastes of sea salt.

The author's husband with a San Juan Island orca.All and all it was a great day ending with one whale sighting, albeit, not the sort we were hoping for.

We were a little disappointed not to see any real whales, but for me knowing that the work I do is helping to protect and preserve these animals is reward enough.

I commend NOAA’s decision to retain the current listing of the Puget Sound orca population, and together with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, will continue to fight to protect our planet’s whales seen or unseen.


To learn more about IFAW's fight to protect whales around the world, visit our campaign page.

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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation