PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The wildlife advocacy groups Defenders of Wildlife, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a joint petition with the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on Feb. 16 to further protect Southern resident orca populations.

Southern resident whales were listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2005. However, the groups say that further state protections are needed — citing declining numbers in the three pods that make up the Southern resident killer whale groupings. These pods are labeled by scientists as “J,” “K,” and “L.”

A graph showing population declines in Southern resident orca pods. (Marine Mammal Commission)

“Although Southern resident orcas are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, the population has continued to decline,” the organizations stated in a press release. “State listing would require the development of a state endangered species management plan, which would spur coordination among relevant state agencies and the development of concrete actions to address the primary threats to orcas in Oregon.”

An adult female Southern Resident killer whale (L94) nursing her calf. (Photo by NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium. Taken by UAV from above 90 feet under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.)

The resident orcas have an extensive habitat range spanning the coasts and inlets of Washington, Oregon and California. Regional spokesperson for Defenders of Wildlife Kathleen Callaghy said that the Southern Residents play an important role in Oregon’s ecosystems. 

“They need and deserve every protection we can give them,” Callaghy said. “Their population hasn’t increased in over five years. There is no time to waste.” 

The groups say that the mouth of the Columbia River is a crucial foraging area for the whales, providing more than half of the Chinook salmon eaten by the whales while they’re in coastal waters. Attributing falling whale populations to declining Chinook salmon numbers and high-traffic waterways, local policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity Quinn Read said that it’s time for the State of Oregon to offer additional support.

“Southern Resident orcas are icons of the Pacific Northwest, yet Oregon has lingered on the sidelines of recovery efforts,” Read said. “It’s time for Oregon to step up and acknowledge its critical role in saving these incredible orcas and the Chinook salmon they depend on for survival.”

State law requires that the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission make a ruling on the petition within 90 days.