If you think we haven’t made progress, consider what happened in south Puget Sound in 1976.

One day in March, collectors from Sea World were using powerboats, planes, and explosives to trap orcas in a small inlet where they could be netted. (Although capturing wild killer whales was still legal at that time, the aquarium was violating the terms of their permit.) Luckily for the whales, the scene was witnessed by future secretary of state Ralph Munro, who at the time was an aide to Governor Dan Evans.

Munro, Evans, and Slade Gorton (then attorney general, later US senator) unleashed a legal and PR barrage that resulted in all the whales being released back into Puget Sound, which became a sanctuary for whales. That year finally marked a turning point in the long steady decline of the Northwest’s orcas.

By 1976, only 70 killer whales remained in the southern resident population, which is estimated to have once numbered between 200 and 300 animals. The three pods of southern residents—J, K, and L—spend most of their lives in the inland marine waters of Washington and southern British Columbia. They are not the only orcas in the Northwest, but they are the best-loved because they are the best-known. It is the southern residents that make surprise winter appearances in Seattle and delight boatloads of summer tourists in the San Juan Islands. (A larger population of northern residents inhabits northern BC and southeast Alaska; and populations of "transient" and "offshore" orcas roam both coastal and inland waters.)

Northwesterners’ fondness for the whales today belies our past callousness to them. It was common practice for fishermen, who viewed the orcas as competition, to shoot the whales. In fact, the Canadian armed forces may even have used orcas for target practice in the 1940s—it was probably considered a public service to kill the predators.

But strict protection measures in the 1970s began to change things. Slowly but surely killer whale numbers began to recover. By 1995, the southern residents counted 98 members, nearly a 30 percent increase in two decades. [Click on the chart at right for a closer look at population trends.]

Not that the threats are past—far from it.

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  • Over the next few years, the population tailed alarmingly downward, mainly in the large L pod. Luckily, since 2000, their numbers have begun to climb once more. At present, researchers believe there are 87 southern residents, up from a low of 80 in 2001. [Click on the charts at right for a look at  population trends by pod.]   

    At the beginning of the 21st century, orcas are no longer victims of guns and outright hostility, but they face threats that are no less pernicious. Because the whales live next door to roughly six million people and the industry that supports them, they are exposed to a variety of disturbances, not least of which is toxic contamination. One dead orca found in 2002 was so contaminated by dangerous PCBs that scientists had to recalibrate their instruments to discover that it harbored perhaps the highest concentration of toxics ever recorded in a marine mammal—dozens of times higher than levels that affect growth, reproduction, and immune responses in other mammals. And samples from other southern orcas have found similarly worrisome pollution.

    But perhaps even more problematic is the huge decline in salmon, the orcas’ principal food. More than a century of clearcutting, development, dam-building, over-fishing, and pollution have reduced Puget Sound and Georgia Basin salmon to a fraction of their historic abundance. Though many stocks are now slowly beginning to recover, insufficient food will likely keep their population depressed. In fact, scientists believe that today’s orcas have to work harder and travel farther to find sustenance.

    And in a tragic irony, even our affection for the whales may be harming them. Whale watching is increasingly popular, especially in the summer, and many researchers worry that near-constant harassment by powerboats may stress the animals unduly. Whale advocates are divided on the effects of whale watching, but it seems to me that the precautionary principle suggests that we keep our distance from them.

    Ensuring that orcas inhabit the Northwest at the turn of the next century will require better policy and also meaningful action. The first step is protecting them under the US Endangered Species Act, a move that may happen by the end of the year. And under the umbrella of the ESA and other conservation policies, we can begin re-building a home for the southern resident orcas that can sustain them.

    On one hand, protecting killer whales is a good example of our obsession with "charismatic megafauna"–big loveable creatures that capture our hearts. But consider the implications of protecting them: restored salmon runs, cleaner water, and toxic clean-ups. It’s a recipe that’s not just good for orcas—but is quite clearly good for people too, not to mention hundreds of other species that inhabit the Northwest. 

    Most importantly perhaps, if the southern resident orcas can thrive within sight of millions of people, they will be an encouraging sign that we can reconcile our way of life to fit within the limits of the ecosystems that surround, support us, and thrill us.