The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Fisheries Service is beginning its species review of the southern resident killer whale, an iconic species here in the Pacific Northwest. As part of its recognition on the federal endangered species list, the southern residents undergo this evaluation every five years to determine whether the species has made progress on criteria defined in the species recovery plan.
Southern residents, named for their summer range in the inland waterways of Washington and Oregon, were granted protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2005 following a 20 percent decline in population. The National Marine Fisheries Service currently classifies orcas as one of the most at risk of extinction based on its relatively high mortality and low reproduction rates. The estimated population in 2015 was around 85 whales.
The issue of orca conservation is challenging, given the profusion of issues that influence the species. Orcas almost exclusively prey on Chinook salmon, which are an endangered species themselves and are important to commercial and recreational fisheries in the area. Therefore one of the primary missions of orca recovery is Chinook salmon restoration.
“NOAA manages the recovery of both killer whales and the restoration of salmon,” explained Lynne Barre, a marine biologist with NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Service. “If we can focus our salmon recovery efforts in a way that also benefits the whales, then we get the best bang for the buck.”
Other key aspects of killer whale recovery include managing contamination, as killer whales spend lots of time around urbanized areas, and lessening impacts from boat traffic, such as noise and overcrowding.
NOAA’s species review will not be complete until this fall, but all indications are that the results will have no bearing on the species’ status on the endangered species list. According to NOAA’s action plan for the southern resident killer whale, they anticipate a time frame of 14 to 28 years for the species’ recovery.