NOAA unveils ambitious five-year plan to save Puget Sound’s struggling orcas

Apr 22, 2021, 1:05 PM | Updated: Apr 23, 2021, 9:16 am
New orca calf, orcas, Southern Residents...
Orca calf L125 swimming with its mother, Surprise. (Center for Whale Research)
(Center for Whale Research)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) unveiled new “action plans” on Thursday to ensure the recovery of five endangered species, including Southern Resident orcas.

Washington ferries use new app to help struggling orca population

The Puget Sound region’s orcas first appeared on the endangered list in 2005, brought on by a 20% drop in its population dating back to the 1990s. Due to the species’ “relatively high mortality and low reproduction [rates]” the vulnerable population of local orcas has continued to dwindle until recently, when three new calves were born over the last year.

Despite that, NOAA notes that it has “not yet seen the trajectory of the population change,” while “challenges remain” for the survival of the new calves. One of the primary reasons for that continues to revolve around a lack of prey, given that the orcas’ primary food source — Chinook salmon — is endangered as well.

Other factors have played into the struggles of Southern Resident killer whales as well, with concerns over the impact of loud vessels that inhibit the ability of orcas to find and capture prey, and contaminants in water from wastewater treatment plans, pesticides, and sewer outfalls.

With Puget Sound orcas pregnant, vessels asked to give space

In its action plan, NOAA detailed a five-year timeline to focus on four main factors: protection from “harmful vessel impacts;” conserving the orcas’ critical food sources; gaining a better understanding of the species’ health needs; and raising awareness about “the recovery needs” of orcas through sustained outreach and education efforts.

That will necessitate hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for an annual census of the population from the Center for Whale Research, analyzing potential contaminants in orca habitats, researching killer whale genome data, spearheading habitat restoration projects for Chinook salmon, and more.

Other species prioritized by the NOAA’s action plans include Chinook salmon originating in the Sacramento River, Coho salmon off the Central California coast, Pacific Leatherback turtles, and white abalone.

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NOAA unveils ambitious five-year plan to save Puget Sound’s struggling orcas