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Celebrating the People and Partnerships Saving Southern Resident Killer Whales

May 24, 2023

Marking the 50th year of the passage of the Endangered Species Act, we are shining a spotlight on the biologists and partnerships saving Southern Resident Killer Whales from extinction.

Killer whale moving rapidly through the water A Southern Resident Killer whale is seen through a zoom lens cruising through water. Killer whales are among the fastest swimming marine mammals, swimming up to 35 mph. Credit: NOAA/Northwest Fisheries Science Center

What’s it like to work every day to save a species? NOAA Fisheries is working to recover five West Coast Species in the Spotlight. They are among nine species nationally that NOAA Fisheries has identified as facing a high risk of extinction, and where concerted recovery actions can make the difference.

Many of the species once had great economic and ecological value as part of the marine ecosystem. Southern Resident killer whales are also sacred animals; to the Lummi Nation, they are known as "qwe lhol mechen," or “our relatives under the water.”

Lynne Barre, Recovery Coordinator for endangered Southern Resident killer whales, shared with us why Southern Resident Killer Whales are worth saving, her proudest achievements to date, and where more work is needed.

What’s one thing you want people to know about Southern Resident Killer Whales?

That we share the ecosystem with the orcas and many of the same concerns we have about our environment are similar to issues related to the whales’ recovery. Salmon are a critical food source for local tribes and residents in the Pacific Northwest and salmon, whales, and people need healthy habitats and clean water to thrive. People and whales often live in family groups and social connections are very important. No one likes to be disturbed, harassed, or prevented from communicating and getting the resources they need.

Why is this species important to protect and recover?

Southern Residents are iconic in the Pacific Northwest and are important culturally and economically. They represent a healthy ecosystem. NOAA’s mission includes stewardship of the nation's ocean resources and their habitats. Under the Endangered Species Act, we are using a science-based approach to prevent extinction and support orca recovery, so they can play their key role as a top predator in the food web.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of bringing diverse partners together to work toward a common goal for recovery of endangered Southern Residents. The threats to the whales and their salmon prey span marine, freshwater, and terrestrial habitats along the West Coast, in Canada, and Alaska. With such far-reaching issues, everyone is connected to orca recovery and must play a role. We work with many different partners at all levels—international, tribal, state, local, non-profit groups, and the public. Our education and outreach efforts help us share our recovery goals and actions with many different partners who can be stewards of the ecosystem and take actions to improve conditions for Southern Residents.

Read more about Lynne Barre

Where do we have more work to do?

The outlook for the orcas is complex with multiple threats related to prey, sound, contaminants and health all interacting to impact this very small population.

Two women aboard a marine mammal research vessel
Lynne Barre (left) and Dr. Deborah Giles aboard a marine mammal research vessel. Photo courtesy of Lynne Barre.

Species in the Spotlight

We know we can’t do this alone. A major component of the Species in the Spotlight initiative is to expand partnerships and motivate individuals to work with us to get these species on the road to recovery.

We developed a Species in the Spotlight 2021–2025 Priority Action Plan and details the focused efforts that are needed over the next 5 years. The plan lists key actions NOAA Fisheries and its partners can take from 2021 to 2025 to help recover the species, including:

  • Protect killer whales from harmful vessel effects
  • Target conservation of critical prey
  • Improve knowledge of killer whale health
  • Raise awareness and inspire stewardship for killer whales

Last updated by West Coast Regional Office on May 25, 2023

Endangered Species Act