Report a Sighting
    Share on Google+
ESA Listing

Orca Network News Release


CONTACTS: Orca Network
Susan Berta/Howard Garrett
360-661-3739 (cell)

ESA Endangered listing sets up seismic shift in our perception of the orca

The best kept secret in all civilizations is that we are animals! We are medium-sized mammals, who just happen to have evolved the ability and the need to construct vast symbolic systems to define ourselves, and now we can't see our way out of our own systems, so we fight each other to the death to defend them. Hoisted on our own petards! Our daily lives are dominated by humans acting badly toward one another while ignoring and trampling the natural wonders that are the real foundations of our own lives.

But there is at least one other species that has also evolved the capacity to construct symbolic systems of self-definition and live according to those rules within distinct cultures for thousands of generations: Orcinus orca. We can learn much from the orca. If you are skeptical, you should be. That's the scientific method, along with reliance on the accumulated evidence and the published work of other scientists.

Below: the astounding natural history of Orcinus orca.

First, a bit of history.

When NOAA Fisheries listed the Southern Resident orca community, native to Washington State and British Columbia waters, as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) earlier this year, a new definition of the orca emerged from the process that officially revised our basic understanding of the species.

Before NOAA could list J, K and L pods as endangered, they first had to establish that this community of orcas is a “distinct population segment” (DPS), as defined by the ESA. In 1978, in response to the need to protect particular runs (not just species) of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, the ESA was amended so they could list a subspecies, and if necessary, a loosely defined “distinct population segment.” Congress instructed the Secretary to exercise this authority “...sparingly and only when the biological evidence indicates that such action is warranted.”

To be considered a distinct population segment, a population must be reproductively isolated from other conspecific (same species) populations, and it must be important for the evolutionary legacy of the species. Until the Southern resident orcas were listed, only geographic separation, at least during breeding, could cause a population to be reproductively isolated from other populations of the same species. For example, Sacramento River Spring run Chinook salmon are geographically, and therefore reproductively, separated from Upper Columbia River Spring run Chinook, and so are listed separately. (Southern Resident orcas have historically depended on both Chinook runs to survive, and both are engandered.)

Trouble is, Southern Resident orcas cross paths every day with Transient orcas, and in fact are in no way separated from Northern resident orcas, or Offshore orcas for that matter. The various populations could easily interbreed, but they don’t. The field of biology doesn’t account for this kind of willful reproductive separation. It tells us something is at work here determining behavior that has never before been found in any animal other than humans. That factor is culture.

NOAA has never before had to deal with an animal that demonstrated culture, so in June, 2002, NOAA partially dodged the issue by designating the Residents as “depleted” under the less stringent Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), thus avoiding the troublesome ESA language. NOAA stated that although the Southern Residents “compose a distinct population,” and “face a relatively high risk of extinction,” they were not significant to the species worldwide. If they went extinct, NOAA said, another orca community could simply move in and occupy their habitat. The MMPA listing triggered a lawsuit in which the judge was presented with a wealth of evidence that Southern residents are a unique and irreplaceable cultural community, which prompted the judge to instruct NOAA to review it all and reconsider their decision not to list the orcas under the ESA. NOAA did reconsider, and concluded that the Southern residents are indeed a cultural community, and needed protection under the ESA. Here’s the evidence, and what it all adds up to.

The strongest evidence for culture lies in the vocal dialects of resident pods; each pod has a distinctive set of 7-17 ‘discrete’ calls (Ford 1991a; Strager 1995). These dialects are maintained despite extensive associations between pods. Some pods share up to 10 calls and pods which share calls can be grouped together in acoustic ‘clans,’ suggesting another level of population structure. Ford found four distinct clans within two resident communities (Northern and Southern), and suggested that these call variations are a result of dialects being passed down through vocal learning, and being modified over time. Thus, given the lack of dispersal, acoustic clans may reflect common matrilineal ancestry, and the number of calls any two pods share may reflect their relatedness. In addition to these pod-specific calls, orcas make a wide variety of “variable” calls, especially during intense socializing, that defy description. No similarities have been found in the calls made by different communities.

Other evidence for culture includes:
  • Unlike any other mammal known, both male and female offspring remain with their mother and her family their entire lives. There is no dispersal.
  • Diet is strictly limited. Though they are the top marine predator, Southern Residents eat only fish.
  • Reproduction is strictly limited. Mating occurs only within the community, and between, but not within, pods.
  • Orcas live in family groups believed to be led by elder matriarchs. Two or more matrilines may form a pod.
  • Female orcas may live more than four decades after birthing their last calf at about age 40-45. Only orcas and humans exhibit such long post-reproductive lifespans.
  • A similar pattern of distinct and separate cultural orca communities has been found worldwide, demonstrating unique vocalizations, diets, social systems and habitat usage.
A landmark paper published in 2001 summed it all up thusly: “The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties” (Rendell and Whitehead).

All of the above leaves little doubt that for Southern Resident orcas, cultural traditions transcend instinct, genetics, environment, or individual learning, and to some extent actually determines evolutionary development. In years to come scientists may be describing not just physical attributes and interesting behaviors in our friendly neighborhood orcas, but their cultural identities as well.


November 21, 2005
photos available upon request, or from our website.

CONTACTS: Orca Network
Susan Berta/Howard Garrett
360-661-3739 (cell)

Southern Residents gain endangered status under ESA
NOAA Fisheries announced November 15 the listing of the Southern Resident Orcas (J, K and L pods) as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the highest level of protection possible by the federal government.

Between 1995 and 2001 this cohesive extended orca family lost 20% of its members, down to only 78 individuals. Since then the population climbed back up to 90 last year, then dropped off to 87 at present, not counting the two L pod whales alive but not present (Luna, or L98 alone in Nootka Sound since 2001, and Lolita, at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970).

Recognizing that Southern Resident orcas could at any time suffer another round of devastating mortalities to the point of no return, Fisheries listed the whales as endangered, rather than threatened, as they had earlier announced. The Fisheries Service must now designate "critical habitat" for the orcas and complete a recovery plan that defines serious risks to the whales and actions needed to reduce or eliminate the threats.

This listing was a welcome surprise for those working to protect the orcas, their habitat, and their main food source, salmon.

The central issues now are to determine the primary factors leading to declines in this population, how to address and minimize them, and how to build an overall social consensus to work together to save this unique and amazing community of orcas from extinction.

Unfortunately the information needed to clarify the issues affecting the whales' survival remains insufficient and complex, and the public is often confused by unsupported rhetorical alarms. In this thicket of diverse data, any attempt to describe in easily understood terms what is killing the orcas is more art than science.

Some important truths have become apparent however. According to the March 2005 Draft of the NMFS Preliminary Orca Recovery Plan:
"Healthy killer whale populations are dependent on adequate prey levels. Reductions in prey availability may force whales to spend more time foraging and might lead to reduced reproductive rates and higher mortality rates. Human influences have had profound impacts on the abundance of many prey species in the northeastern Pacific during the past 150 years. Foremost among these, many stocks of salmon have declined significantly due to over-fishing and degradation of freshwater and estuarine habitats through urbanization, dam building, and forestry, agricultural, and mining practices."
When periodic starvation is compounded with known levels of persistent toxic contamination these magnificent orcas lose their immunity to disease, fail to reproduce and too often simply disappear. We believe those two factors, periodic starvation and persistent contamination, provide the primary explanation for the population declines, and we fear that any turn in climatic conditions, or any catastrophic event such as an oil spill or a disease outbreak could turn the screws even tighter on the Southern Residents until they are gone forever.

"Our hope is that the Endangered listing will not only bring about greater efforts to help protect the orcas, but that it will also increase awareness and understanding of this community of orcas that live amongst us, and the fragile nature of their continued existence. However, if Congress continues on its path to gut the Endangered Species Act, the best tools available to protect these killer whales will vanish before our eyes" said Howard Garrett of Orca Network.

Nowhere else in the world does there exist such a well known and thoroughly researched group of orcas. J, K and L pods delight residents and visitors of Washington State, spending the summers off the San Juan Islands and the fall and early winters traveling in and out of Puget Sound, offering many opportunities for shore and boat based whale watching. This urban population has been studied for 30 years by the Center for Whale Research as well as Canadian researchers, and because of these studies each individual in the Southern Resident community is known and documented.

NOAA Fisheries has determined that Southern Resident orcas behave as a distinct cultural community, with its own vocabulary of calls, its own specific diet of salmon and other fish (but not mammals), its own social and mating systems and ceremonies. The extended clans known as J, K and L pods remain together for life, passing their knowledge of the undersea topography and complex salmon runs down through the generations. If only for the sake of our own future generations, we need to do all we can to ensure they will survive here. Much remains to be learned about our fascinating orca neighbors.

"People tend to respond better to education and awareness than to regulation. If it is understood how irreplaceable and fragile this population of orcas is, people are more likely to support protective measures and take action to keep our waters clean, bring back the salmon, and ensure future generations will have the same delight we have of seeing orcas swim past our shorelines," said Susan Berta, who runs Orca Network's popular Whale Sighting Network.

The Whale Sighting Network helps track orcas and other whales by collecting whale reports through a toll free number (1-866-ORCANET) and website. Whale reports are posted on the website and sent out via email to over 1400 people, including citizens hoping to catch a glimpse of the whales as they pass our shorelines, and researchers and government agencies who are seeking to learn more about the whales' travels and behaviors. This time of year offers wonderful opportunities to observe the orcas from the many miles of shoreline on Whidbey, Camano, Bainbridge and Vashon Islands, and the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas as they follow the fall and winter salmon runs into the inland waters of Puget Sound.

We ask for your help in keeping track of the orcas (and other whales), and request that you report whale sightings so we can get the information as soon as possible. Whale sightings can be called in to our toll-free number: 1-866-ORCANET, or you can email reports to us via E-Mail. Orca Network is working with The Center for Whale Research, The Whale Museum and NOAA Fisheries by providing data collected through our Whale Sighting Network.

Featured Products

Donate to Orca Network

Please click HERE
to help


Privacy Policy
Orca Network
Please contact Orca Network to inquire
about educational use of any materials on this site.