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Awareness Month for Orcas as They Return to Washington's Waters

The Southern Resident orca population is making its way to the inland waters of western Washington. (Robert Pittman/NOAA)
The Southern Resident orca population is making its way to the inland waters of western Washington. (Robert Pittman/NOAA)
June 6, 2016

SEATTLE – June is Orca Awareness Month, the time of year when killer whales return to the inland waters of western Washington.

The endangered residents of Northwest orca pods face a number of threats, the most severe being a shortage of food, which is mainly Chinook salmon.

"Our efforts are primarily to contribute to salmon restoration and the awareness of that linkage between the Chinook salmon and the health of the southern residents,” says Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network, located on Whidbey Island. “So, that's a lot of what Orca Awareness Month will do."

Washington state first designated June as Orca Awareness Month in 2013.

The Orca Network has focused on four dams on the Lower Snake River that Garrett says are preventing young Snake River salmon from making it to the Pacific Ocean.

Garrrett says the removal of those dams would increase salmon populations along the Pacific coast, providing much needed nutrition for orcas.

Orcas also face other threats, including toxins such as PCBs that are absorbed through the mammal's blubber.

However, after a five-year period in the late 1990s when local orca populations diminished by 20 percent, Garrett says the northwest whales have experienced a baby boom in the last year-and-a-half, with 10 whales having been born.

He says that's a good sign for the pods that visit Washington, which are unique compared to other orcas.

"They maintain their cultural bonds and stay with each other and adhere to basically the rules of behavior, of diet, of mating, of associations, and of their calls," he explains.

The orcas around Washington are part of a family or clan called Southern Resident Killer Whales. They were placed on the Endangered Species list in 2005.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA