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Protecting Puget Sound’s Orcas

Southern resident orca J16 makes rainbows while surfacing in Puget Sound.

Southern resident orca J16 makes rainbows while surfacing in Puget Sound. The southern resident orca population is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Miles Ritter / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What’s at Stake

After thousands of years of stability, Puget Sound’s small band of genetically distinct orcas is facing extinction. An Earthjustice victory kept them from fading away, but continued vigilance is needed to ensure federal protections remain in place, to protect the orcas from new harmful actions, and to promote recovery.


Orcas are known for their intelligence, agility and playfulness. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Pacific Northwest, where the resident orca pods attract tourists and scientists from around the world. As of 2014, this critically endangered population of killer whales has been reduced to only 80 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 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 Act protections remain in place and is tackling the threats impeding recovery of these orcas.

Case Updates

August 9, 2019 | In the News: Go Skagit

Endangered Orca Population Continues Decline

Janette Brimmer, Attorney, Earthjustice: “The overall magnitude of the municipal stormwater pollution problem in Puget Sound dwarfs other sources. The development that lies at the heart of the stormwater problem is profoundly damaging to salmon habitat and the ability of salmon and orcas to recover from their endangered status in Western Washington.”

November 22, 2013 | Article

A Thanksgiving Flood of Salmon

More salmon have returned to the Elwha River over the past two months than at any time in at least 20 years.