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Humpback whale © Christopher Swann

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The Southern Resident orcas are a unique community, but are we presiding over their journey to extinction?

In the United States, the first 100 days of a newly elected president’s term are thought to represent the new administration’s ability to reach their proposed targets.  While largely symbolic rather than statutory, “the first 100 days” are closely watched by the media and their success measured by public approval ratings.  It is with the idea in mind of measuring the actions of the administration’s first 100 days that we are bringing you our 100 day blog series. The series highlights 6 populations of whales and dolphins for which fewer than 100 remain while arming you, our supporters, with clear information on these critical issues and how you can get involved.  Some are at risk of extinction within our lifetimes; some are at risk of extinction within the next 2 to 5 years.  All of them need your help to survive.  

The Southern Resident orcas are one of the world’s most urban whale populations, but as a result of human action, today they are also one of the most endangered.  There are just 78 individuals left in this critically endangered orca community.

The Southern Resident community was severely impacted by the barbaric efforts in the 1960s and 70s to capture orcas and bring them into captivity.    About 40% of the Southern Resident orca population was sold to marine parks or died in capture efforts in just a decade.   Tokitae (also called Lolita), held at the Miami Seaquarium, is the only surviving Southern Resident orca from this dark era.   

The Southern Residents never fully recovered from having so many individuals taken from their population, and since then they have faced new and increasing threats: 

  • Prey depletion – Southern Resident orcas are fish-eaters, and prefer Chinook salmon above all other fish, but their favorite food is also in trouble.  Salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest have declined extraordinarily in the last hundred years, they have been overfished, their habitat lost to logging and development, and rivers and streams blocked by dams.  The impact of prey depletion is hitting the Southern Residents hard, and exacerbates the effects of other stressors. 
  • Pollutants – living in the coastal waters of the west coast of the US and Canada, they are heavily impacted by pollutants from seaside urban areas, and are considered one of the most contaminated marine mammal populations in the world.  These toxins can impair the immune and reproductive systems of the orcas, making recovery even harder. 
  • Vessel effects – their urban habitat also means the Southern Residents live among the busiest shipping routes and ports of the west coast.  Human-created noise has increased significantly, making it harder for those that live in the ocean to communicate, forage, navigate, and go about their daily lives.  Whales and dolphins are acoustic beings and live in a world of sound, and the Southern Residents are increasingly subject to the effects of noise and harassment.  Constant vessel traffic also puts them at risk of ship strikes or a catastrophic oil spill. 

Although these unique whales are currently living on the brink of extinction, the fight to save them is far from over.  Together, we can take action to try to ensure that the Southern Residents are not consigned to the history books.  We can clean up their home, rebuild salmon stocks, address vessel traffic and ocean noise, and make sure we don’t add more stressors to their habitat.  Here’s what you can do to help: 

  • Follow the rule of R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuse. 
  • Make smart choices to reduce your impact on the planet and our waterways. 
  • Use reusable items whenever possible to cut down on single-use plastic and waste. 
  • Check your area’s regulations for recycling on Earth911. 
  • Refuse to buy a ticket to an aquarium that holds whales and dolphins captive. 
  • What WDC is doing: working with local and national partners to restore salmon in the Pacific Northwest by removing dams on the Klamath and Snake Rivers; pushing policymakers to expand critical habitat and increase protections for the Southern Residents; raising awareness about the Southern Resident community, their history, and the reasons they’re endangered. 

You can support our policy and research efforts by Adopting an Orca, subscribing to our blogs and enewsletters, or making a donation to help us continue our work. 

All water goes to the ocean, so whether you live on the beach or in the mountains, your everyday life can affect and is affected by our oceans.  Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to speak up – knowledge is catching! Explain your choices and actions to your friends and family.  Tell them about the Southern Resident orcas and why they need help.  You may inspire them to make positive, whale-friendly changes, too.  Together we can create a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free. 

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