What you can do – personally – to help save Puget Sound’s resident orcas

(J46 [Star] and J34 [Doublestuf], photographed near West Seattle in October 2016 by Kersti Muul)

With the Southern Resident Killer Whale population down to 79 after the death of J34 in B.C. waters last week, many who love our orcas continue to wonder what can they personally do – if anything – to try to help keep the endangered whales from dwindling to extinction. Donna Sandstrom, the West Seattleite who founded and leads The Whale Trail, shares these thoughts, republished with permission from TWT’s website:

Let the untimely death of this young whale inspire us to address the issues that are impacting these orcas: lack of salmon, toxin accumulations, and noise and stress from boats. It is not one of these things, but all.

A well-meaning and concerned public has been led to focus exclusively on bringing down the Snake River dams, as if that was the only or even the best thing we can do to help these whales.

Bringing down dams is a complex challenge that will take decades to accomplish. Meanwhile, these pods are disappearing before our eyes. There are plenty of things each and all of us can do *right now* to help.

Watch from Shore. Noise and stress from boats makes it harder for hungry whales to catch the fewer salmon that *are* there. The next time J, K, or L pods are near, find a Whale Trail site near you and watch them from shore. Know that by reducing sound in their environment, you are giving them a better chance to make it.

Support a Whale Protection Zone. Orca Relief and others have petitioned NOAA Fisheries to establish a protected zone for orcas on the west side of San Juan Island. Sign the petition now, and encourage NOAA to give the whales acoustic space in a critical part of their range.

Reduce Toxins. Living on the edge of the Sound, the choices we make in our daily lives have an impact on whether these whales will survive. Orcas are at the top of the ocean food chain. Toxins like PCBs, PBDEs and DDT bioaccumulate in orcas, stored in lipid cells like blubber and mother’s milk. When the orcas are stressed, the toxins may be released into their bloodstream, and make them more susceptible to diseases. Any actions we take to reduce toxins from entering Puget Sound is a win for the whales.

A few simple suggestions:

*Don’t use pesticides on your lawns. Plant a rain garden, or a native plant, to filter toxins and prevent them from entering the Sound as runoff.

*Walk or take the bus instead of driving once a week, and reduce the oil that runs off pavement into the Sound.

Learning from Success:

Next year we will celebrate the 15th anniversary of Springer the orphaned orca going home. In 2002, she was rescued, rehabilitated and reunited with her pod on the north end of Vancouver Island. Three years ago, she had her first calf. It’s the only successful orca reunion in history.

Why does this story matter, and what bearing does it have on the survival of the southern residents?

To get the whale home, we had to learn how to work together, as individuals, and across organizations, agencies and nations.

Above all, we put the whales’ best interest first.

What hope there is for the whales begins with being honest about the issues that are impacting them. That means, putting their best interest ahead of our own, whether commercial, financial, or simply a desire to get closer that puts them further at risk.

We must encourage and embolden our governments to move urgently to protect this population. We must also understand that NOAA and DFO can’t do this alone—as with Springer, we each have a role to play.

As the days lengthen, let’s match the sadness we feel about J-34’s death with a strengthened resolve to protect his family. Their fate is in our hands — that is our challenge, and our hope. Together, we’ll find light in the dark for the whales.

While early necropsy results showed that “blunt-force trauma” killed J34, researchers have not yet conclusively identified the source. This was the third J-pod orca death announced in less than two months.

16 Replies to "What you can do - personally - to help save Puget Sound's resident orcas"

  • Kersti Muul December 26, 2016 (10:42 pm)

    Thank you Donna.

  • Kersti Muul December 26, 2016 (11:09 pm)

    Shortly after I took this photograph, Star (J-46) lost both her mother, and little baby brother. These blows to the Orcas are relentless and heart wrenching….

    Little did Star know, she would lose another family member two months later. The one she is following along here…and only 18 years young. 

  • miws December 27, 2016 (7:00 am)

    Here’s a link to the above mentioned petition:



    • Kersti Muul December 27, 2016 (7:46 am)

      Thank you Mike

    • captainDave December 27, 2016 (6:55 pm)

      Here is a link to more details on the petition:


      One of the problems in this proposal is that Haro Strait on the west side of San Juan Island is the main shipping channel connecting the Port of Vancouver to the ret of the world.  Alternatively, international ships would need to transit Rosario Strait on the east side of the San Juans which would present other major problems.

      Thor Orca hang out between San Juan Island and  Hein Bank in the Summer and Fall because that’s where the large schools of salmon come in from the Pacific and split to go up the Fraser River or to the rivers on Puget Sound. 

      A better solution would be to fund a (quite) shepherding patrol boat on both sides of the border that could keep vessels away from the pod during critical times.  No matter how many people sign the petition, it’s either not going to happen because of commerce treaties with Canada, or the no-go area will end up being too small to have any effect.

  • Steve Smith December 27, 2016 (8:12 am)

    Thanks for these practical and actionable tips.  Great job pointing out the benefits of rain gardens and public transport 👍 

    A critique:  Your assumption that breaching dams takes decades becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if we think that way.  In fact, an Exec Order would get it done much quicker, assuming there was support by local elected officials.  Please don’t discourage the momentum that has been developed to get the dams breached by spreading a defeatist view.  

    Land-based viewing is wonderful, but whale-watching from boats (if driven properly) is not that impactful.  Of much greater concern are large tankers and the threat of increased noise and toxins from oil tankers.  Odd that the Kinder-Morgan pipeline is not mentioned here explicitly.  

    • WSB December 27, 2016 (8:54 am)

      This is not intended to be nor was it billed as a coverage of all issues affecting the SRKW population. We don’t do a lot of republishing of what’s been published elsewhere, but thought it worth reminding people about very specific personal direct action they can take. In our previous story after J34’s death was announced – one of the supplementary links in the last paragraph above – we noted the dam situation again (we went outside our coverage area to report on the multi-group event in October); the other link, the most recent Canadian article we could find about J34, goes into the pipeline issue – which has only just started to get notable regional attention. – TR

  • Donna December 27, 2016 (9:21 am)

    Hi Steve – I published my post the day Double-Stuf was discovered, before we even knew that his death was a result of blunt force trauma, most likely from a ship strike. Of *course* the Kinder Morgan pipeline is a concern, and puts the whales at tremendous risk, and should be stopped.

    Whale-watching boats and the recreational boaters they attract *are* having an impact. One sample finding from a published, peer-reviewed study in NOAA’s SRKW recovery plan : when boats are present, the whales forage significantly less, and travel significantly more. (See https://www.nwfsc.noaa.gov/news/features/killer_whale_report/pdfs/bigreport62514.pdf
    We need a new collective vision of what sustainable whale-watching looks like  – a model that acknowledges and values the role of boat-based whale-watching, and also gives the whales the space and time they need to forage, rest, socialize and recover.
    The clock is ticking for the whales, and we are losing this battle. How long before there are no whales left to watch? 
  • Artsea December 27, 2016 (11:03 am)

    I notice that prior to every election in our state, we have some important state politicians speaking out about how much they plan to do to clean up Puget Sound.  I fear it’s all just something to say to boost their chance of being re-elected.  I’ve been listening to this talk for at least the last 30 years.  Is anything really being done to make Puget Sound a healthier body of water for our whales and other wildlife?  Or…..is it all just talk, talk, talk?

    • Jeanette Dorner December 27, 2016 (2:16 pm)

      The funding for habitat projects in the federal and state Salmon Recovery Fund (SRFB) and the state fund the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration (PSAR) fund have been and can in the future make a real difference for habitat and for the salmon that the orcas depend on for food.  Your state legislators will be deciding in their budget session starting in January how much money they want to put into those funds.   You can let them know that they should fund those programs to make a real difference for salmon and orcas.  The SRFB fund requested $55 million and the governor recommended $30 million in his budget, PSAR requested $80 million and the governor recommended $50 million.  It would be great if the state legislature would at least fund these accounts at the level the governor requested and it would make a even bigger difference if they were funded at their original request amounts.

  • WestCake December 27, 2016 (11:12 am)

    Seattle is having a tough enough time caring for the thousands of fellow human beings living in tents, which undercuts any talk of saving animals. 

  • nw December 27, 2016 (1:53 pm)

    Engage with smokers potliley ,they have the right to smoke cigarettes, yet cigarette butts are the single most littered object world wide and majority of them are not cotton. Alot of people don’t realize our storm drains here in this region drain rain water ,storm water pollution, directly into the sound no filter no processing it beforehand, direct! If you and I were dumping a 12oz plastic bottle every time we finished a pop or whatever in the sidewalk or curbline we would all be like wtf and speaking out micro liter unfortunately we don’t we accept it as ok behavior. 

  • Jeanette Dorner December 27, 2016 (2:06 pm)

    Hi Donna,  

    These are some great practical realtime suggestions for folks!  Thanks for posting this.

    If you hadn’t heard I am starting in January as the new Executive Director of the Mid Sound Fisheries Enhancement Group.  Our mission is to work with folks in much of King County and East Kitsap county to restore salmon habitat.  If you have room in your lineup of speakers next year I’d love to come back and talk to the good folks supporting The Whale Trail to share some more practical tips on how we can work together to improve salmon habitat and make more salmon for our beloved Southern Residents.  As you said there’s a lot we all can do in our own backyards!

    Give me a call at 253 820-7298 or email me at my new work email address at jeanette@midsoundfisheries.org.  I start officially in January.

    Hope to talk to you soon!

    Jeanette Dorner

  • Kathy December 27, 2016 (4:42 pm)

    A fun way to support Puget Sound Clean Water:

    Chocofest – benefits Puget Sound Keeper

    Be sure to bring a big bag to haul home goodies. And take public transportation or ride a bike.

  • anonyme December 28, 2016 (9:44 am)

    Puget Soundkeeper is a great local organization.  Gary & Manuel Salon in Seattle has lots of events that provide surprisingly large benefits for PSK.

  • Donna December 30, 2016 (1:22 pm)

    Jeannette- nice to see you here and thanks for the great offer! Yes we’d love to have you come back for an Orca Talk. Will be in touch.

    Quick note to say that if anyone has follow up questions, ideas or comments about what we can do for the whales you can reach me at donna@thewhaletrail.org, 206-919-5397.  And, look forward to seeing you on The Whale Trail!

Sorry, comment time is over.