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.”

Meet the YIMBYs, Seattleites in Support of Housing Density

Meet the YIMBYs, Seattleites in Support of Housing Density

A new movement is saying yes to urban density in all its forms
Ballard homeowner Sara Maxana (with daughter Nani) identifies as a YIMBY, and supports more housing density, including in single-family areas

Sara Maxana is exactly the sort of person you might expect to see getting involved in her neighborhood meetings. A single mom with two young kids, Maxana lives in a single-family 1931 Ballard bungalow of the type many neighborhood activists are fighting to preserve. Ballard, where the population grew 26 percent between 2010 and 2014, is ground zero in Seattle’s density wars, which pit pro-growth advocates, many of them young renters who moved to the city within the last decade, against the longtime homeowners sometimes disparagingly known as NIMBYs, for “not in my backyard.”

What you might find surprising is that Maxana isn’t a NIMBY. She’s one of a growing group of people who say “yes in my backyard,” coining a new acronym: YIMBY.

Maxana, who once worked at the sustainability nonprofit Futurewise, had more or less retired from politics. But she got re-engaged after Mayor Ed Murray proposed the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) in 2015. The plan (see sidebar, below), which proposes higher density across the city—including the addition of more backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas—quickly became divisive.

Maxana started identifying as a YIMBY because she felt Seattle decision makers needed to hear a positive story about the changes that are coming to the city. She began speaking up at public meetings, studying the details of HALA and tweeting as @YIMBYmom, a quiet rebuke to those who say all urbanists—i.e., people who believe that cities should be dense, culturally vibrant, diverse places with lots of different transportation options—are single, transient renters with no ties to their community.

By embracing the YIMBY concept, Maxana joins a growing community of activists, researchers, housing experts and community-based organizations that see growth as an opportunity to create housing for all the new people who want to live in cities, rather than a hostile invading force. These groups make up a loosely organized, informal coalition of organizations and individuals across the country and, indeed, the globe (groups using the YIMBY framework have sprung up from Melbourne to Helsinki to Iowa City), who believe that the root of housing affordability is a housing shortage, and that the solution to that shortage is simple: Build more housing.  

Image By: Maria Billorou
Zachary DeWolf at the 12th Avenue Arts Building: trying to make Capitol Hill a place for mansion owners and street people alike

Although they span the political spectrum, from far left social-justice activists to hard-core libertarian free marketeers, YIMBYs generally agree that cities should be accessible and affordable for everyone, whether they own a million-dollar mansion or rent a $900-a-month studio, and whether they work as a barista or just moved to Seattle for a new job at Amazon.

Seattle might not seem the most obvious axis for this pro-density revolution. For one thing, it’s a city where the single-family home, especially the iconic Craftsman bungalow, is sacrosanct. So thoroughly did Seattle embrace the postwar ideal of the detached single-family house with a yard that it’s written into our zoning code, which preserves a remarkable 57 percent of the city’s buildable land exclusively for single-family houses. (In Portland, the number is 3 percent.)

But as more and more people move to Seattle—the city’s long-range plans anticipate 120,000 new residents by 2035—tension between longtime homeowners and renters, many of them relative newcomers to the city, has mounted. Rents in Seattle increased more last year than those in any other big city in the country, and in the past five years, the median rent has increased from just over $1,500 to more than $2,000. Meanwhile, the median income of renters, $47,847, is less than half that of homeowners, $108,768.

Instead of merely complaining about the housing crisis, Maxana says, YIMBYs “see growth as something that can catalyze change and bring about good things for cities.”

“I don’t see YIMBYs as addressing a problem so much as addressing an opportunity,” Maxana says. “We’re not trying to stop things; we’re trying to say yes to change. I think it’s much more exciting to be pushing for a vision than against what’s happening.”

For Maxana, that vision includes more new neighbors, more interesting shops and coffeehouses, more places to walk and bike and ride—in other words, more of all the things that are coming to her Ballard neighborhood already. “In Ballard, we have all these new breweries, and they’re child-friendly and they’re dog-friendly, and there are places to sit outside with your kids,” Maxana says. “I see more people in the parks, on the streets, on the bus. In my neighborhood, I can walk to five bus lines that get me across town to everywhere I could possibly need to go in the city. And all of that activity lends itself to more vibrancy, and just a more interesting place to live.”

Maxana can rattle off the statistics that describe Seattle’s housing crisis—for example, 40 new people and 35 new jobs are added every day, yet only 12 new housing units a day. But she and other YIMBYs argue that statistics don’t change minds; values do. “We cannot convince anybody with the data alone. We have to be speaking about our values and we have to be speaking from our heart—not ‘I feel this way and so should you,’ but ‘I’m a mom in Ballard and I want my kids to be able to live here when they grow up, and ultimately, this is why I support [density].’”

YIMBYs are starting to make waves at city hall. In July, under pressure from YIMBYs and other urbanists who argued that the city needed to do more to include marginalized groups such as renters, immigrants and people of color, Murray announced the city was cutting formal ties with the 13 neighborhood councils that advise the city on growth and development, eliminating their funding and creating a new advisory group to come up with a more inclusive neighborhood outreach strategy. (The neighborhood councils, Murray noted, are dominated by older, white, wealthy homeowners, and are not representative of an increasingly diverse city.)

While the YIMBYs didn’t make this change happen on their own, their support helped provide political cover for Murray and his neighborhood department director, Kathy Nyland (a former Georgetown neighborhood activist who is openly sympathetic to the YIMBY cause), for what turned out to be a controversial move. Many neighborhood activists liked the neighborhood councils as they were.

Some neighborhood groups are starting to move in a YIMBY direction. A Capitol Hill renter and self-identified YIMBY, Zachary DeWolf stepped into a leadership vacuum on the Capitol Hill Community Council in 2014. He was first elected vice president in 2014, and then president in 2015. As president, he restructured a traditional neighborhood group dominated by older homeowners into an organization run almost entirely by young renters.

His goal: to make the group that represents Capitol Hill more welcoming and inclusive. He has encouraged young renters to run for leadership positions; changed the style of the meetings from a traditional format with leaders sitting at a table facing the audience, to a circular roundtable where everyone can participate; and instituted more after-work hours/evening “community conversations” and “socials” to give a wider range of people a chance to get to know each other and discuss neighborhood issues.

The group’s policy emphasis has been different, too. Instead of advocating for anti-urbanist causes, such as banning corner stores in residential areas and placing a moratorium on new micro apartments as it did in the past, the council is discussing how to accommodate a supervised drug-consumption site in the neighborhood. As DeWolf puts it, “Instead of pushing [drug users] out to neighborhoods that are farther out, where there’s less resources and community, why not just keep them here and take care of them ourselves?” He adds, “At the end of the day, every person that’s in our neighborhood—whether it’s someone living in North Capitol Hill in a gajillion-dollar mansion or someone sleeping in the doorway on 15th in front of someone’s business, every type of person is our neighbor. To me, that is very YIMBY.”

Dennis Saxman, a longtime Capitol Hill activist and renter who opposes what he sees as out-of-control development and gentrification in his neighborhood, believes YIMBYs are well-meaning, but that they misunderstand the root causes of Seattle’s affordability crisis. “I don’t think they understand that Seattle was once notable for the strength of its neighborhoods and their differing characters, and that at one time, that was seen as something important to preserve and desirable,” Saxman says. “Now it’s seen as a way to market neighborhoods while at the same time destroying what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood.”

Saxman says he admires a lot of what DeWolf has done to bring new people into the council, but argues that “they’re falling short” when it comes to including more racial minorities, longtime residents and low-income people. “I don’t think they’re authentically community-based,” he says.

Will Seattle’s future look more like DeWolf and Maxana’s vision—an ever denser city, where newcomers and their ideas are welcome—or more like the city of the past, where conversations were dominated by residents resistant to change? That may depend on whether YIMBYs can make the leap from a vocal group of contrarians who provide a counterpoint to conventional wisdom at city hall to a force that helps guide city policy while bringing new allies, including more single-family homeowners, on board.

One sign that yimbys in Seattle are having an impact came last June from 1,300 miles away in Boulder, Colorado. A group of 150 YIMBYs from all over the country convened at an inaugural conference, YIMBY 2016, to talk about their challenges and successes. The Seattle contingent, which included Maxana, Sightline Institute staffer and Capitol Hill renter Serena Larkin, and University District renter and YIMBY activist Laura Bernstein (who tweets at @YIMBYSea), showed up feeling a bit discouraged by local rancor over HALA. But they left energized after delegations from other cities expressed enthusiasm for what they see as an inclusive coalition of Seattle groups that support HALA, which include urban activists, developers, environmentalists and social justice organizations.

“All these other groups and cities kept telling us, ‘We need to do that work—how did you get all of those people at the table together?’” says Larkin. “It wasn’t the policies [the details of HALA] we came up with, but the relationships that they saw had been built through HALA.”

When you’re in the thick of things in Seattle, it’s hard to see what’s being accomplished here, notes Bernstein. “But when you compare Seattle to other cities, then all of a sudden we look like the success story. I think that there are battles that we’re losing, but we’re winning the war.”

Maxana points to the success of the housing levy, which funds low-income housing and which Seattle voters approved by more than 70 percent in August, as a sign that many Seattleites support the idea of building more housing, including affordable housing. “I see that, and I just have to believe something is clicking,” says Maxana. “And even though you have such a volume of vitriol on [private social media site] Nextdoor and in some of these neighborhood meetings, I think, for the most part, when I look at the city, I see people who want a good place to live not just for themselves, but for their kids and their neighbors.”

Including neighbors they don’t even know yet.

What The Hala?
The proposed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), billed as an “action plan to address Seattle’s affordability crisis,” aims to build 50,000 new housing units in the next 20 years, 20,000 of those affordable to people making less than 60 percent of Seattle’s median income ($37,680 for an individual and $53,760 for a family of four*).

To help accomplish this, HALA will: 
Increase the maximum height of new multifamily buildings in multifamily areas and commercial buildings outside downtown, South Lake Union and the University District by 10–20 feet.

Require rental housing developers to make a percentage of the new housing they build affordable to people making less than 60 percent of median income, or pay a fee that will go toward affordable housing elsewhere in Seattle. (Commercial property developers will also have to pay a similar fee.)

Ease restrictions on backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in single-family areas, to allow as many as one of each on single-family lots.

Expand the boundaries of urban villages and rezone about 6 percent of Seattle’s single-family areas to allow low-rise multifamily housing in those areas.

Implement anti-displacement strategies in neighborhoods with low-income residents who are especially vulnerable to displacement, and promote homeownership, especially for vulnerable populations.

See a full list of HALA strategies at
* Source: City of Seattle