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NOAA renews program to bring Southern Resident orca population back from decline

The Southern Residents were chosen to be part of the Species in the Spotlight program to rescue the population from near "certain" extinction.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) renewed an initiative aiming to stabilize the Southern Resident Killer Whale population living in the Puget Sound.  

NOAA started the Species in the Spotlight program to provide targeted, immediate efforts to halt the decline and stabilize populations of the Southern Resident orcas and several other species thought to be headed for extinction in the United States. 

The Southern Resident orcas are once again part of the program because they were identified as endangered with a declining population. The Southern Resident whales are considered to be a recovery priority by NOAA, which means their "extinction is almost certain in the immediate future because of rapid population decline or habitat destruction, and because of conflicts with construction, development, or economic activity," according to NOAA's plan. 

One of the major threats facing Southern Resident orcas is insufficient prey. A major food source for the species, chinook salmon, is also listed as endangered.

 The whales are also exposed to high levels of contaminants and are impacted by ships and noise pollution that affects their behavior and makes it harder for them to find and capture prey, according to the organization. 

NOAA reported the trajectory of the Southern Residents' population is still declining, even with the addition of three new calves born since the summer census count in 2020. 

The next phase of NOAA's program will include protecting orcas from harmful vessel impacts, targeting conservation efforts of the orcas' prey, improving knowledge about the current health of Southern Resident Killer Whales, and raising awareness about the recovery needs of the orcas.