Southern Resident Orca Whale Recovery

It’s difficult to imagine a Washington without orcas or salmon. These species are part of the cultural identity, fishing economy and tourism industry of our region. But both Washington’s Southern Resident orcas and Chinook salmon are facing a dismal fate. More than a century of development and human activity along the Puget Sound and Columbia River along with the ravages of climate change are largely to blame.

Unfortunately, there is no one, easy solution to saving Washington’s resident killer whales. What was historically a healthy population of around 200 animals has now dwindled to 73 orcas. The environmental conditions that threaten their survival took generations to create and will take a grand, coordinated effort to reverse. Each piece of this puzzle is complicated and delicate. Three key problems impact the health of orcas: lack of food, toxics in the water and noise disturbance from boats and other vessels.

In March 2018, Inslee issued an executive order directing state agencies to take immediate actions to help the struggling orca population. Inslee also established the Southern Resident Orca Task Force to develop a long-term plan for recovering orcas. The task force includes nearly 50 members representing a wide range of sectors including state agencies, the legislature, and state, tribal, federal and local governments, as well as private sector and non-profit organizations. Learn more about the Southern Resident Orca Task Force.

After months of deliberation and public input that included 18,000 written public comments, the task force issued a report to the governor with dozens of recommendations to alleviate the major threats to Southern Resident orcas. The task force set an initial target of increasing the population to 84 orcas over the next decade. The task force’s recommendations support overarching goals to benefit orcas:

  • Increasing the abundance of Chinook salmon
  • Decreasing disturbance and other risks posed by vessel traffic and noise
  • Reducing exposure to toxic pollutants — for orcas and their prey
  • Ensuring adequate funding, information and accountability measures are in place to support effective recovery efforts moving forward

The task force recommendations formed the basis for the governor’s proposed plan to the legislature in December 2018. Inslee announced an unprecedented suite of investments to save Southern Resident orcas and complement efforts to recover salmon, tackle climate change, improve the health of the region’s entire ecosystem, improve water quality and more. Read the details of Inslee's 2019-21 budget proposal and the more information on the governor's Medium page.

On May 8, Inslee signed five crucial orca recovery bills into law that protect the safety and livelihood of the Southern Resident orca. These policies protect orcas from vessel noise and traffic, improve the safety of oil transportation through the Salish Sea, and increase fish forage habitat and Chinook salmon for the orca’s food source.

In August 2019, the governor’s office hired a consultant team to engage stakeholders in further analysis of the economic, social and environmental impacts of retaining, breaching or removing the lower Snake River dams. In March 2020, they released their findings. Read about the Lower Snake River dams stakeholder process and the result of the study