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Orcas in Puget Sound

Case Number # 5627

An extended family of orca whales has made Puget Sound and associated waters its home for thousands of years. Numbers have declined sharply in recent years but it took a win in court to prod the government into protecting them.

Orca L87 breaches at sunset with Whidbey Island and Mt. Baker in the background, Oct. 15, 2010. (Susan Berta / Orca Network)
Orca L87 breaches at sunset with Whidbey Island and Mt. Baker in the background, Oct. 15, 2010.
(Susan Berta / Orca Network)

Orcas are known for their intelligence, agility, and playfulness. Nowhere is this more obvious than the Pacific Northwest, where the resident orca pods attract tourists and scientists from around the world. As of 2013, this critically endangered population of killer whales has been reduced to only 84 individuals. These unique marine mammals have been decimated by the decline of salmon—their primary prey—and by toxic pollution and habitat degradation from shipping, sonar and other human activities.

Puget Sound's extended family group of killer whales, known as the southern residents, spends much of the year hunting salmon in in the waters between Washington and Canada. In the winter and spring months when salmon are scarce, they can range as far south as California in search of food. The southern resident killer whales have evolved distinct language, culture, and physical and genetic characteristics that set them apart from other types of killer whales that feed on marine mammals or roam the open ocean.

Earthjustice litigation resulted in the southern residents getting Endangered Species Act protections in 2005. Today, they are still threatened with extinction; the National Marine Fisheries Service has found that the loss of even one reproductive age female could jeopardize the existence of the species. On behalf of our clients, Earthjustice continues to work to ensure Endangered Species protections remain in place.

Press Releases

Friday, August 2, 2013
Puget Sound’s majestic Southern Residents targeted but prevail
Monday, January 28, 2013
Puget Sound's southern resident orcas targeted
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Judge denies standing to farm, development interests
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Conservationists view designation and recovery plans as important steps toward revival of the orca population
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Whales protected by court order over resistance from the Bush administration
Thursday, December 16, 2004
Conservationists hail decision to protect orcas, demand Congress protect Endangered Species Act.
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
Judge gives government a year to reconsider protecting resident orcas under the ESA
Friday, May 23, 2003
Conservationists fight determination that southern residents are "Not Significant"
Friday, May 9, 2003
Proposals would allow Navy ships to blast harmful sonar at will
Wednesday, December 18, 2002
New births signal there is still time to act