Can Seattle Scientists Save Orcas from Extinction?

Limited numbers of orcas swim the Salish Sea—and new troubles await them.

This February, a young killer whale washed up on the chilly shores of southwest Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula.

Scientists looking at the markings on its dorsal fin and saddle patch (the dark gray splotch behind the dorsal fin) identified the whale as L112, a female just over 12 feet long born in 2009. She belonged to the L Pod, one of three pods (with K and J) in a genetically linked clan researchers call the Southern Residents, which travel primarily in the Salish Sea, the waters including Puget Sound north to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia. Although not all killer whale groups worldwide are troubled, these three genetically distinct species are endangered.

Identifying the dead whale was a fairly simple task, but another question was more complicated: What had killed her? The many possible answers reveal the number of threats looming for our region’s largest predator, and the challenge researchers and environmentalists face in trying to bring resident orcas back from the brink. “These orcas have been studied for 35 years now,” says Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Montlake. “But there are some gaping holes in our knowledge.”

L112 wasn’t the first orca to strand in recent memory—in fact, another, from a different, offshore population, stranded near Long Beach in November. But the death of L112, known to many by the name Sooke, was unusual, as it was the first of the Southern Residents to beach in U.S. waters since April 2002.

At this writing, there are only 87 Southern Resident killer whales, and their vocalizations, diet and behaviors distinguish them from all other orcas in the world. (Other killer whales in our area are either Northern Residents from British Columbia; transients, which pass through the region and feed mainly on other marine mammals; and offshore orcas, which are mostly coastal.) While the Southern Residents travel as far south as central California during the winter, they spend their summers in southern British Columbia and the San Juan Islands. We start seeing the J Pod in our inland waters in May, with K’s and L’s following in June. (We still don’t know the exact scope of their winter range, a focus of current studies at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.)


PCBs are considered the most likely to affect orca immune systems, leaving the animals more susceptible to diseases, parasites and fungi. They are also harmful to their endocrine systems, which regulate hormones, interfering with reproduction.


As a young female with a potential to breed, Sooke’s loss means one less chance to nudge Southern Residents toward survival. Local orcas have been listed under federal law as an endangered species since 2005. Since then, growing the numbers of Southern Residents has become vital work for local scientists and environmentalists. To be delisted under federal regulations, the clan must maintain an average population growth rate of 2.3 percent a year for 28 years—one scenario posed by the recovery plan sets the number at around 155 animals in 2029, or a little less than twice the number we have now.

Scientists think there may have been that many, or more, Southern Residents breaching in local waters in the mid-20th century, before the arrival of entrepreneurs who saw dollar signs in captured orcas and plundered their numbers. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, more than 50 orcas were taken from the waters of south Puget Sound and off south Vancouver Island, using harpoons, nets and small bombs. Reports of the time describe a depressing, chaotic scene, as Southern Resident orcas, which bond for life in matrilineal family networks, were chased apart. Some were killed. Those that survived the roundup were taken to aquaria for public entertainment. (Only one of those whales, known as Lolita, survives, at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida.)

Since then, protected by law, local orcas have become adored icons, flaunted in brochures, attracting tourists for whale-watching trips, delighting ferry riders as they pop up unexpectedly, fin slapping the water or launching 6,000 to 12,000 pounds of blubber and muscle into the air. Orcas can live to be 80 to 100 years old, and avid whale watchers can identify resident orcas by name.

But the whales have not rebounded as hoped. Today, the J Pod is increasing in numbers, but K and L pods are decreasing. “There are more deaths, and fewer births,” says Hanson. By contrast, the Northern Resident orcas, another fish-eating clan, which ranges from Washington state to southeast Alaska, have been steadily increasing. The endangered species recovery plan identifies several likely reasons for orca troubles, but one floats to the top of many biologists’ lists: the decline of chinook salmon.

“I would put their search for scarce, polluted salmon front and center,” says Scott Veirs, oceanographer and professor at the Beam Reach Marine Science and Sustainability School, a marine science program associated with the University of Washington. We have long known that our local orcas are salmon eaters. More recent studies have shown Southern Resident whales are even more specialized than that, favoring chinook salmon over all other salmonids. (Their summer diet is about 75 percent chinook; the rest is mostly chum salmon.) The 87 Southern Resident orcas consume anywhere from 290,000 to 800,000 chinook annually (the range is large because their winter diet is undetermined). The fish are another endangered species. “Some people think we should make more effort on chinook availability,” Hanson says. “Chinook are a very high priority for us, but many of these runs are endangered themselves.”

Calls of the Wild
Underwater microphones trace orca conversations and other mysterious sounds.

Killer whales have more calls than most cell phones have ring tones. The Southern Residents use about 40 calls, which change over time. “They’re only quiet when they’re resting, and they don’t rest much,” says Scott Veirs. “You couldn’t ask for a more interesting species, acoustically.” Veirs and his father, Val Veirs, help run the Hydrophone Network for, based on San Juan Island. It consists of five underwater microphones, two on the west side of San Juan Island, one in Neah Bay, one at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center and a last dangling underneath the Seattle Aquarium. The hydrophones are a boon for researchers studying sea life, but they also draw listeners from all over the world who want to dip into the stream of sound. The microphones pick up orca chatter, sea lion grunts, boat creaks, the groans of rockfish and mysterious popping sounds that may or may not be shrimp. “We keep hearing things that we’ve never heard before,” says Veirs. “The sea keeps delivering mysteries to us.” Listeners have also identified the sound of sonar, a more controversial finding. The network is compatible with iTunes and Winamp, a Windows media player. To listen to live and recorded sound streams, visit

Howard Garrett, cofounder of Whidbey Island’s Orca Network, a nonprofit raising awareness of the issues facing Southern Residents, says some salmon (he would like to see 1 millon) will have to be set aside for the orcas. “We are going to have to allot a quota for the Southern Residents, just like we do for commercial, recreational and tribal fisheries,” he says. Equally urgent is the need to continue the cleanup of salmon habitat, restoring the streams and rivers where salmon spawn.

Not only does a dearth of chinook likely limit the resident orca population, but years with low chinook numbers may leave the whales more susceptible to diseases and other health dangers. At the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, scientists have been trailing orcas by boat from a distance and collecting their floating scat for analysis. This noninvasive method of data gathering allows them to find out if a whale is pregnant, whether or not it has eaten recently and other important health information. By studying stress hormones, called cortisols, the scientists have found a correlation between orca stress levels and the presence of many boats. But whether or not the whales have enough to eat affects those stress levels, too. When the whales are hungry, their cortisols increase around traffic, and when they are well-fed, they do not.

Contaminants in the food supply also affect the health of killer whales. “There are hundreds of contaminants in the tissues of killer whales,” says Dr. Peter S. Ross, who studies marine mammal toxicology at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in British Columbia. The contaminants travel to the water from multiple sources (air pollution, runoff, discharge from water treatment plants) and end up in the bodies of salmon; the killer whales eat the salmon and pack away the pollutants in their flesh. Many of these chemicals are no longer used in the U.S., but persist in the air, water and food supplies. “It’s a legacy effect,” says Ross. Although the insecticide DDT was banned in the 1970s, it is the top contaminant in Southern Residents, which also carry 140 types of PCB, a chemical once used in heavy industry, and about 30 types of PBDE, a flame retardant now being phased out, which is found in cars, furniture, computers and textiles. PCBs are considered the most likely to affect orca immune systems, leaving the animals more susceptible to diseases, parasites and fungi. They are also harmful to their endocrine systems, which regulate hormones, interfering with reproduction.

When the whales have limited food supplies, the concentration of these chemicals in their bodies increases as their blubber decreases. We don’t yet know if that makes them more sensitive to chemicals. We do know that when whales nurse their young, many of those pollutants are dislodged from fat stores and passed on to their calves, just as in humans. Tests have shown juvenile orcas carry higher contaminant levels, particularly of PBDEs.

Finally, killer whales are struggling in a noisy waterway. Orcas survive by sound, using it to feed, orient and communicate. The Southern Residents hunt for fish by sending out clicks from their heads and listening for the quiet echo of that sound off the swim bladder of a fish. The sound reflects off the bladder (an air pocket) in a way that is characteristic of the size and species of that fish. Potentially, then, ambient noise could make it harder for killer whales to hunt. Veirs cowrote a study that revealed that orcas raise their voices in proportion to the increase in noise in the water around them. Even small vessel noise, such as that from whale-watch boats, can cause an acoustic response. “We call it the cocktail party effect,” says Veirs. “When we walk through a loud room of other talking people, we raise our voices.” We don’t know if raising their voices matters to the orcas’ survival, but it could. Recent regulations have set stronger limits on how closely boats can approach orcas.

Navy sonar is a source of louder, potentially more dangerous noise, as military boats train in inland waters and off the Washington coast. Veirs says the Navy happens to train in the same midfrequencies, 2–10 underwater kilohertz (kHz) used by Southern Residents for their whistles and calls. “That’s the sweet spot for their communication,” he says. Such a sound could distract or permanently deafen a nearby killer whale. For this reason, more than a dozen U.S. and Canadian groups, including the American Cetacean Society, Beam Reach and People for Puget Sound, have urged the U.S. and Canadian navies to cease testing sonar in the Salish Sea. Listening in with underwater microphones called hydrophones, Veirs and others have heard explosive sounds. Shock waves from such a blast could potentially kill a whale that was too close to the source.

At this writing, a sonar blast or other underwater explosion are two of many possibilities on the table as a possible cause of Sooke’s death. The initial necropsy revealed trauma as the cause of death, but was otherwise inconclusive. “The biggest thing we found was the extent of the bruising; you could see it around the head and the chest and on the right side, and on the top of the lungs,” says Jessie Huggins of Olympia’s Cascadia Research Collective, a nonprofit that researches marine mammals. Researchers found no broken ribs and no signs of disease. “It looked like a healthy whale that had been through quite a bit of trauma,” says Huggins. A CAT scan revealed further soft tissue damage, but not what killed the orca. Local biologist Ken Balcomb says it looked like Sooke had been “blown up.”

Meanwhile, in a small victory for Sooke’s family members, the U.S. and Canada recently held transboundary meetings to bring together fisheries and killer whale biologists to discuss how many fish orcas need. “That’s a bright light in this otherwise gloomy situation,” says Veirs. “The killer whale never had a seat at the table before.”

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Is Seattle ready for high-rises built of wood after 80 years of concrete-and-steel buildings?

When architect Joe Mayo walks into his office, he’s steeped in Seattle history. Mahlum Architects is located in Pioneer Square’s 1910 Polson Building, which served as a warehouse for gold mining equipment during the Klondike Gold Rush. Over the past 100 years, the building has also housed offices and artists’ lofts, and survived two arson fires. So it’s remarkable to see the original old-growth Douglas fir columns still rising from the floor and spanning the ceilings. “It creates a pretty amazing environment,” says Mayo.

Large buildings framed with wood from big trees were commonplace in Seattle and in other parts of the country in the early 1900s. But changing building codes and diminishing availability of large timber put an end to this style. Today, wood buildings are usually one- or two-story houses, while our apartments, hotels and office buildings are nearly all built from concrete and steel. The six-story Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill, which opened in 2013, is the first mid-rise building in Seattle constructed of wood in the past 80 years.

With the advent of a new wood building material called cross-laminated timber (CLT), it might one day become one of many such structures. Proponents say the benefits of building with CLT could be significant. CLT can be used to create buildings that are as tall as 30 stories (and beyond, some architects say) that are better for the environment and aesthetically pleasing, and can be quickly built, help create jobs in economically depressed regional timber towns and are as long-lasting as other buildings. Some research even suggests that wooden buildings offer health benefits for occupants.

Mayo says the material makes sense for our region. “Architecture should feel like it’s a part of a place,” he says. “We’re in the great Northwest, with some of the tallest trees in the world and the best timber in the country, and we have a long history of building with wood.”

But while building codes in Europe and in some other countries have changed to embrace the new material, and CLT buildings as tall as 10 stories are in use in Australia and London, U.S. building codes lag behind. Seattle recently became the first city to allow the use of CLT in construction, but that use is currently limited to five stories for residential buildings and six stories for office buildings.

“The City is open to proposals on larger buildings, but we do have to verify that fire safety and seismic issues have been addressed in the designs,” says Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections. That’s because, while these issues have been resolved for buildings in other parts of the world, the U.S. requires domestic testing if building codes are to change.

Washington State University is one participant in a multi-institutional program with the National Science Foundation and the Network of Earthquake Engineering Simulation that is testing how mass timber systems like CLT fare in earthquakes. Hans-Erik Blomgren, a structural engineer in the Seattle offices of the international engineering firm Arup who is a participant in the research program, believes engineers can solve this puzzle. “There’s no technical reason we shouldn’t be designing a building with this material,” he says.

U.S. fire codes have also long prevented the use of combustible materials such as wood in mid- and high-rise buildings, but engineers say code changes to allow for the use of CLT are also achievable. To understand how resistant to fire large pieces of wood can be, proponents suggest thinking of how hard it is to start a bonfire with really big pieces of wood. Not only are such pieces hard to light, but they burn slowly.

In theory, developers could propose larger CLT buildings before codes are changed, but they would have to invest time, money and coordination to get this new building type through Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections, with no guarantee that their designs would be approved. “It takes a very special project and specific client and certainly a very ambitious design team to take it on,” says Mayo.

Unless that client steps forward, builders will be waiting for the International Code Council (ICC) to work through the fire and earthquake issues and develop the necessary code changes before mid-rise and higher CLT buildings spring up in the city. 

“We know there’s been a lot of interest in this construction type,” says Stevens, “so we’re trying to be responsive to the demand without giving up safety.”

As with so many innovations, another problem for developers is that material costs for CLT can be high because there are so few North American CLT manufacturers. Developers wait for the price to go down, but manufacturers need more demand for a product. To alleviate this problem, some businesses and legislators are working to help bring CLT mills to Washington state. An Oregon lumber company, D.R. Johnson Lumber, in Riddle, Oregon, recently became the first certified manufacturer of CLT for construction material in the U.S.

Clt was developed in the 1990s by researchers in Austria and Germany who were looking for a use for pieces of surplus wood. The material is created by layering smaller pieces of wood together into a kind of sandwich that offers the strength and insulation found in the massive timbers of the past, and that can be used for the walls, floors, roof beams and posts that make up a building. 

One of the most touted aspects of this material is its role in fighting carbon emissions. Trees absorb carbon and use energy from the sun to grow, which makes them a lower carbon choice than concrete or steel, which not only don’t absorb carbon, but require much more carbon-emitting energy to manufacture. Trees are also a renewable resource, as long as they are harvested from a sustainably managed forest. And CLT can be made from otherwise underused or damaged woods, such as the vast forests of domestic pine that have been killed by mountain pine beetles.

Another selling point, particularly in urban areas, is that CLT panels are prefabricated—bring them to the building site, and your building goes up quickly, with less noise, pollution and traffic delays than with other materials. The eight CLT stories of London’s nine-story Murray Grove apartment building went up in nine weeks.

But building with CLT is not all about practical considerations, says Susan Jones, who owns the Seattle architecture firm Atelierjones and designed her family’s home as the first (and so far only) CLT home in Seattle’s Madison Valley in 2015. The material itself—in the case of her house, CLT primarily from white pine and left unpainted—is a sensual pleasure, from the quality and patina of the wood to the subtle pine smell in the house.

“It’s been incredibly satisfying to live with it,” Jones says. “That’s what architects are asked to do—we create beautiful spaces for people. What’s better than to immerse yourself into this incredibly rich natural environment of wood?”

Here in Washington, there’s enough raw material to immerse us all in that environment. But only a handful of projects in the state have used the material so far—for example, in Jones’ CLT house, in the walls of the Bellevue First Congregational Church sanctuary designed by Atelierjones and on a building project at Washington State University in Pullman. In Oregon, Joe Mayo recently worked on the design for what is to be the first use of U.S.-made CLT on a two-story building project, using panels manufactured by Oregon’s D.R. Johnson.

There are a few other regional CLT building projects in the design process now. In June, Washington state granted design-build contracts to several architects, including Susan Jones of Atelierjones and Joe Mayo of Mahlum, for 900-square-foot classrooms at several elementary schools in western Washington, to be constructed by the end of 2017. 

Another building, Framework, a 12-story building with retail, offices, and housing in Portland, Oregon, is currently in the design process, after a team, which includes Blomgren as its fire and earthquake CLT engineering specialist, won a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tall wood building competition created to encourage innovation with the material. Winners for 2015, including the Portland team and a team in New York City, each received $1.5 million for the research and development phase of creating buildings using CLT and other engineered wood materials.

At the University of Washington, associate professor of architecture Kate Simonen is leading another USDA-funded study to determine the relative environmental impact of using mass timber in commercial office buildings in Seattle, which follows on other studies indicating that this kind of building will have a lower carbon footprint than other building materials. 

While she’s cautious about reaching premature conclusions in her study, Simonen thinks it might not be a bad idea to start working now to get the structures built in our region. 

“We don’t have all the answers now, but in order to get those answers we need to help lead innovation,” she says. “It makes sense to take some risks in our region to advance a building material that supports our region.”