The slide toward extinction of endangered West Coast killer whales has captured public and media attention this summer. We grieved with orca mother Tahlequah as she carried her dead calf for 17 days and 1,000 miles. The feat kept her from eating and cost her precious energy. Just a quarter of her pod’s newborns have survived in the past two decades.
It’s been hard not to identify with the plight of the Southern Resident killer whales. Their population is down to just 75 and failing right before our eyes. They are wild animals, but their obvious grief and pain seem relatable to most of us. Killer whales are indeed intelligent, social animals known to form lasting social bonds — living in highly organized pods where everyone cares for the young, sick, or injured.
Despite our love for these iconic orcas, human activities are what’s driving the Southern Residents toward extinction — and only humans and the overdue actions that we should be taking are going to save them. It’s on us.
Southern Residents are starving because we’ve depleted the salmon runs they rely on by damming their rivers, logging, and developing the surrounding habitat. Their health is compromised by the toxic chemicals and other pollutants we’ve subjected them to over their long lives. As they travel along the West Coast from Canada to the San Francisco Bay, they get harassed and disturbed by shipping traffic, military sonar and other human activities.
So it’s no wonder that Tahlequah, also known by scientists as J35, gave birth to a baby that could not survive long. This population hasn’t successfully reproduced since 2015, a direct result of the stresses they experience from myriad human causes.
But we can still help turn things around. Washington state residents love and celebrate these iconic orcas, from the everyday “orcaholics” who follow their movements or build them monuments in Seattle to the experienced researchers who provide them comfort and aid.
A starving, emaciated orca named Scarlet, aka J50, might already be dead by now if it wasn’t for the scientists and tribes who secured a supply of live chinook salmon — the Southern Residents’ favorite food — and came up with ingenious ways to deliver antibiotics and other medicines that might help.
Yet, such individualized care won’t save this critically endangered species. Southern Residents need robust and bold actions on a big scale if these magnificent orcas are going to survive. Notably, the goal of the Endangered Species Act is to recover these magnificent animals. It has powerful tools to protect habitat, limit threats, and plan the recovery of endangered species.
A recent study of the success of the Endangered Species Act found that 78 percent of marine mammals and sea turtles protected by the Act have populations that are significantly increasing. But the Endangered Species Act only works if the feds robustly use its tools.
Instead, we’ve seen the Trump administration and Congress attempt to dismantle this landmark environmental law rather than use it to save our orcas. Congressional Republicans have launched more than 75 legislative attacks that would block or weaken protections for endangered species, and the Trump administration has proposed regulatory changes that chip away protections.
For orcas, it is the feds’ woeful inaction that is undermining their recovery. For example, in 2015 the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that habitat protections needed to be expanded to protect the winter foraging areas for Southern Resident killer whales — but to date, the feds have failed propose any new critical habitat protections.
Expanding habitat protections to include the coastal waters off Washington, Oregon and California would safeguard the killer whales’ winter foraging areas. Scientists have noted that it’s during the winter that the orcas are especially starving. Designating these areas as critical habitat will trigger a requirement that any federally permitted activity must avoid harming the habitat. This could mean reducing water pollution, noise pollution, vessel disturbance, and protecting prey. Endangered species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering than those without it.
Acknowledging that these iconic orcas are dying and that they need and deserve basic habitat protections is the very least we can do. It’s the first step toward saving them.
Miyoko Sakashita directs the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a lawsuit on August 16 to compel the Trump administration to expand habitat protections for Southern Resident killer whales.