Orca whale jumping out of the water
Killer Whale (Orca) (Orcinus orca)

Killer Whales and Boats:
Information and Guidelines
Washington's Vessel Regulation Protecting Southern Resident Killer Whales
Be Whale Wise Guidelines
Soundwatch
Straitwatch
The Whale Trail
Killer Whale Information & Fact Sheets
WDFW Status Review
Orca Network
Center for Whale Research
State and Federal Policies & Management
Washington State Laws and Regulations
[ RCW 77.15.740 ]
Federal Recovery Plan
NOAA West Coast Region Orca Website

Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery

Overview

  • Southern resident killer whales, also known as orcas, reside in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea of British Columbia regularly from late spring through the fall. During the rest of the year, they range along the Pacific Ocean coastline from northern California to southeast Alaska, spending much of their time off of Washington's coast.
  • Southern resident killer whales are classified as an endangered species by the U.S. and Canadian federal governments and by Washington state. However, despite these protections, the population has fallen from 98 whales in 1995 to just 76 as of December 2017. Recent research indicates many killer whales are in poor physical condition and are struggling to successfully raise calves.
  • Southern resident killer whales are a beloved icon of the Pacific Northwest, holding significant cultural value to native tribes. In addition, the whale-watching industry contributes up to $60 million per year to Washington's economy and supports hundreds of jobs in the Puget Sound region.
  • Three primary threats to the whales are: (1) a lack of prey; (2) toxic contaminants; and (3) disturbance from noise and vessel traffic.

State lawmakers increase orca recovery funding

The Governor and Legislature recognized the urgent need to address these challenges during the 2018 legislative session, when they provided about $3 million to help WDFW and other agencies with orca recovery.

Funding will help WDFW:

  • Increase enforcement of laws protecting orcas.
  • Boost hatchery production of chinook salmon and other prey species.
  • Install fish screens to protect juvenile salmon from being drawn into farm irrigation systems.
  • Conduct public outreach and education.

Governor issues orca-recovery executive order

On March 14, 2018, the Governor signed Executive Order 18-02, directing WDFW and several other state agencies to take immediate actions to benefit southern resident killer whales. The order also established the Governor's Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force to develop a long-term action plan for orca recovery and sustainability.

Directions to the agencies and the task force are described in detail in the executive order. The task force website will be updated to reflect the group's deliberations and recommendations.

Recovering orcas requires many inter-related actions

Southern residents killer whales need more prey, especially chinook salmon. And they need specific protections to be able to capture their prey effectively. This will require (1) making more fish available and (2) protecting the existing orca population from human disturbances.

Strategies to make more prey available will focus on:

  • Habitat:  The most sustainable way to increase the number of salmon available to killer whales (and to humans) is to recover wild salmon through habitat restoration and improved fish passage, especially salmon stocks in areas most important to the whales. 
  • Hatcheries: Increased hatchery production will be critical, but it will take two to four years for fish released from Washington hatcheries to be available as adults for southern resident killer whales. Hatchery production will be increased for stocks that most benefit the whales while not jeopardizing wild salmon recovery.
  • Hydropower: Enhance salmon and steelhead smolt survival by supporting infrastructure improvements and increased water spill over dams to protect migrating salmon. 
  • Contaminants: The presence of toxic contaminants from stormwater, wastewater and other sources must be reduced in Puget Sound to increase the survival of migrating salmon.
  • Harvest: Fisheries will be managed to diminish vessel impacts and reduce competition for salmon between fishers and orcas. In the next two to three years, before increased hatchery production can generate an increased return of adult salmon, fewer fish may be available for harvest by fishers in areas that are most critical for southern resident killer whales.
  • Predation: To the extent possible under federal law, WDFW studies and manages predator populations to maintain sustainable marine mammal and bird populations while also trying to minimize predation on diminished fish stocks.
  • Fish screens: New funding will enable WDFW to install fish screens in the Puget Sound, Methow, and Wenatchee drainages to protect juvenile salmon from being drawn into farm irrigation systems.

Strategies to protect the current orca population will address:

  • Vessel disturbances: Actions will be designed to minimize physical disturbances and noise from human-powered watercraft and motorized vessels. Tactics will include expanded enforcement of existing whale-protection laws, so that southern resident killer whales can maintain their natural foraging and socialization behaviors.
  • Education and outreach: New funding will help expand efforts to ensure boaters, kayakers, whale watchers, and commercial and recreational fishers are aware of their potential impacts to killer whales and understand relevant laws and regulations.
  • On-the-water patrols: WDFW has received grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to conduct 20 to 70 orca-focused patrols each summer.  In addition, the Soundwatch Boater Education Program and its Canadian counterpart, Straitwatch, promote responsible boating and collect information on compliance with regulations.
  • Improvements in oil spill responses: The only realistic option to minimize impacts of a potential oil spill on southern resident killer whales is to deter them from entering oil-contaminated waters. Efforts will include improving the ability of spill responders to locate killer whales during oil spills and conducting drills that simulate the risks to the orcas.