American Oceans

Are Orcas Endangered?

Orcas are amazing animals that you can find everywhere on the planet. They live in all major oceans and have complete protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

an endangered orca killer whale

Orca whales are distinctive creatures with black and white markings. Also known as killer whales, these enormously intelligent animals are often rounded up and used for entertainment in marine-themed amusement parks.

Recently, this practice has come under fire thanks to films like Blackfish, so more orcas are being left out in the wild.

Unfortunately, they still face various threats, from climate change to prey depletion.

orcas swimming out of climate change

The good news is that more and more people are beginning to appreciate and understand these animals’ plight and figuring out good ways to help them.

There are plenty of ways that you can help vulnerable orcas thrive in today’s oceans. But, first, it’s essential to understand their conservation status and what types of threats they face. 

Orca Whale Conservation Status

Orcas are considered “data deficient,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Natural, or IUCN.

orca population swimming in the waters

Essentially what this means is that we simply don’t know enough about what’s happening with the orca population to consider them endangered, but their population is at risk.

Endangered species are those that will likely go extinct at some point in the near future.

There are drastic steps that people, communities, and countries can take to preserve various species, but without intervention, endangered species will perish. Fortunately, orcas are not part of this classification.

endangered orcas swimming in the oceans

Although orcas are prolific in all of the world’s oceans, their numbers are dwindling due to a variety of different factors.

Since it’s hard to study orca behavior in the wild due to their sparse populations and deep-sea swimming patterns, we don’t know too much about what makes these massive animals tick.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature determines what groups are considered endangered animals and which ones aren’t.

Trained orca whale public show

They are closely monitoring the fate of orcas to see if their designation needs to change in the future.

In addition to animals, the International Union for Conservation of Nature also keeps track of plants and insects. This seasoned group is full of scientists and experts from all around the world.

They regularly look at different species to make sure that they are thriving despite different environmental and human-influenced challenges.

Understanding these challenges and threats is vital to helping vulnerable species like orcas survive for the long term.

Threats to Orcas

It’s important to know what threats orcas face to help them.

orcas swimming away from threats

Although it might not seem like individuals can do much to assist vulnerable populations, like orcas, there are some fundamental steps that we can take to make life better and easier for these creatures.

There are a few critical threats to orcas that we will elaborate on below.

Climate Change

Orcas are drastically affected by climate change and global warming. Unfortunately, this reality is not unique to the orca population, and many sea and land animals are facing the same reality these days.

orcas breath due to climate change

One of the key reasons why climate change is hurting the orcas so much at the moment is that it’s affecting the food supply.

We will get into this more a little bit later, but shifting migratory patterns and changing weather means that many food sources, like seals, are moving.

Climate change is especially disastrous for orcas living in very northern or southern latitudes.

These animals tend to use sea ice as an effective means of hunting, and when sea ice is depleted, they can’t get to the schools of fish that use the ice as cover.


Although the practice is widely frowned upon, many people still hunt orcas for sport, food, or to capture them for entertainment.

orcas hunt for sport and entertainment

Baby orcas are often separated from their mothers and forced to perform in marine-themed parks. As a result, these orcas often become aggressive and isolated from others.

As of right now, it’s illegal to trap wild orcas in the United States, although this practice persists in other parts of the world.

Until the practice is eliminated globally, these creatures will continue to be at risk. Even if hunters or fishers don’t specifically target orcas, they could get trapped in nets or other types of gear.

orcas in ocean trapped in nets

Trapped orcas will often exhaust themselves trying to break free and might even become injured or die.

Therefore, fishers need to understand where the orcas are and try to avoid interacting with them if at all possible. Otherwise, orcas could get in the way and suffer the consequences

Chemical & Noise Pollution

Things like higher ship traffic, oil spills, and oceanic garbage definitely hurt orca populations.

orcas trapped inside oceanic garbage pollution

Ocean pollution from treatment plants, pesticide runoff, or sewage can damage the fragile ecosystems in our oceans and cause problems with the food chain.

Additionally, orcas can ingest these chemicals through the water and get sick or even experience organ failure and reproductive issues.

Oil spills are catastrophic for orca populations because they eliminate the food chain and can hurt orcas’ insides.

orcas affected by oil spills and noise pollution

In addition, oil spills can have a generational effect on many sea creatures, including turtles, lobsters, and orcas.

One thing that can cause serious damage to orcas is ships passing through their natural migratory lines.

These animals are susceptible to all different kinds of sounds, and noise from big or small vessels can, and often do, interrupt communication and startle the animals.

As a result, they might start to take different migratory routes or interrupt essential functions like reproduction or feeding. 

Prey Depletion

One of the top reasons orcas are vulnerable is that their prey supply is seriously depleted. This goes hand-in-hand with global warming and climate change and is part of a more significant problem affecting both land and sea animals.

orcas affected by global warming and prey depletion

Since orcas are apex predators, they are highly influenced by what happens to smaller animals down the food chain.

Many orcas also have specific food preferences, like Chinook salmon, which is a currently endangered fish.

Without access to their preferred food supply, orcas will have to drastically change their migratory patterns, face health problems, or in some extreme cases, starve.

orcas affected by food supply depletion

Female orcas need a plentiful food supply to survive and thrive, especially if they’re pregnant or nursing. Lack of access could mean sick or vulnerable pups or even sterility.

Prey depletion is a direct result of climate change, so we need to look at the bigger picture of global warming to address it.

How Can We Help Orca Populations?

Although it might seem strange that one person can help the entire orca population, it’s true.

Killer Whale Orcinus Orca swimming in the ocean

However, there are small steps that we can take to keep these majestic creatures from suffering or becoming endangered. One of the top ways to aid the orcas is by addressing climate change.

Since climate change leads to less sea ice and depleted prey, fighting it is one of the top ways that we can help sea and land animals and ourselves.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to avoid eating endangered fish, like Chinook salmon. Another good way to help these creatures is only to participate in ethical whale watching.

orca populations afftected by underwater garbage pollution

Make sure that if you interact with their habitat, you do it with as little interference as possible.

Another great way to aid the orcas is to limit how much plastic you use. Plenty of plastic winds up in the ocean and can cause significant problems for both the orcas and their food sources.

Recycle whenever you can, and avoid single-use plastics. Reduce toxic runoff by changing your car’s oil regularly and avoiding putting chemicals down drains. All of these little things can and do add up to significant changes.

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