Killer whale (orca) conservation and management

Celebrate Orca Action Month 

Every June, we join alongside our partners in celebrating Orca Action Month to bring awareness to progress together to save our Southern Resident Killer Whales from the brink of extinction.

In addition to having served on Governor Inslee's Southern Resident Orca Task Force, some of our other efforts to support southern resident killer whale recovery include: 

  • Leading salmon habitat restoration projects throughout Puget Sound
  • Supporting additional protections for forage fish and Chinook salmon, a major part of the SRKW diet
  • Working to increase the number of salmon produced at hatcheries
  • Adopting rules for commercial whale watching of Southern Resident killer whales
  • Ramping up outreach, education, and enforcement of southern resident killer whale protections 
  • Continuing to encourage shoreline homeowners to join the Shore Friendly program, which helps to restore shorelines to make them better homes for migrating fish to rest and find food

As part of this month's celebration, we invite you to tune into Orca Action Month events. To view the full Orca Action Month event schedule, visit the Orca Action Month website. Find more information below about steps you can take to support Southern Resident killer whale recovery. 

Be Whale Wise

With boating season right around the corner, it's a great time to review regulations and best practices that support Southern Resident killer whale survival.

Image of Be Whale Wise guidelines for recreational boaters

 

Vessel traffic can interrupt echolocation clicks the whales use to track and capture fish. A key finding from research that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries published earlier this year indicated this is especially prominent in females, which often give up foraging when boats approach within 400 yards. Research shows this may be most concerning in pregnant or nursing mothers that must support calves.

Further emphasizing the cause for concern, only about one-third of the SRKW population is actively breeding. Of those breeding, not many pregnancies result in live calves, and even when they do, not many calves survive. 

By following these steps below, recreational boaters can be a part of  the work to make a difference for the whales' ability to ability to move about, feed and socialize: 

  • Stay at least 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales and at least 400 yards out of their path or behind the whales.
  • Reduce your speed to seven knots within a one-half nautical mile of a Southern Resident killer whale.
  • Watch for the Whale Warning Flag, a tool to let others know that there might be whales nearby. If you see the flag, slow down! Get a flag of your own from our partners at the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee. 
  • Turn off fish finders and/or depth sounders if you do see Southern Residents in the distance. 
  • Help to encourage positive behavior: Report violations.  

For more details about steps you can take as a recreational boater to keep the whales – and yourself! – safe, visit BeWhaleWise.org. For the guidelines in a printable version to keep aboard your boat, visit the Be Whale Wise website
 

Overview

Orca breaching in Puget Sound
Ken Rea

Classified as an endangered species, 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. Learn more about the killer whale and its habitat on our killer whale web page

Three primary threats to the whales are:

  1. A lack of prey 
  2. Toxic contaminants
  3. Disturbance from noise and vessel traffic.

Despite their endangered listing, the southern resident killer whale population has continued to decline, signaling that they need additional intervention in their recovery. WDFW is committed to conserving and protecting these orca whales and is working tirelessly to support their return from the brink of extinction. In addition to serving on Governor Inslee's Southern Resident Orca Task Force, some of our recent efforts to support southern resident killer whale recovery include: 

  • Leading salmon habitat restoration projects throughout Puget Sound
  • Supporting additional protections for forage fish and salmon
  • Working to increase the number of salmon produced at hatcheries
  • Ramping up outreach, education, and enforcement of southern resident killer whale protections 

Making Progress

WDFW's progress has been hand-in-hand with legislative support for orca recovery. Recent WDFW efforts thanks to funding from the Washington state Legislature include: 

2020
  • Commercial viewing of SRKW: In December 2020, we approved new rules for commercial viewing of Southern Resident killer whales to reduce the impacts of vessel noise and disturbance on the whales' ability to forage, rest, and socialize while enabling sustainable whale watching. The rules only restrict commercial viewing of SRKW and do not further restrict the viewing of Bigg's killer whales, humpbacks, or other species of whales and marine mammals beyond regulations already in place.
  • Increased enforcement: Funding to the Department’s enforcement program to increase vessel patrols in central and southern Puget Sound to protect orca whales. The department will also be coordinating with the crab fishing industry and Washington Whale Working Group to minimize the risk of whale entanglements. 
  • More hatchery fish: Washington State, tribes and public utility districts received $13.54 million in the state operating budget to increase hatchery production consistent with sustainable fisheries and stock management, available habitat, recovery plans and the Endangered Species Act. Increases in production will occur in state, tribal and public utility district facilities, resulting in 26.15 million additional smolts annually. The Legislature also provided nearly $40 million (a 20 percent increase) to make capital improvements to state hatcheries.
  • Removed barriers to migrating fish: Direction to the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board to develop a comprehensive statewide culvert remediation plan to support orca and salmon recovery.
  • Expanded predator management: Support for management of pinniped populations on the lower Columbia river and its tributaries in an effort to increase the amount of Chinook salmon available for southern resident orcas. 
2019
  • Vessel disturbance: Enhanced legal protections to increase the distance boaters should be from the whales and reduce boat speed. To reduce daily and cumulative vessel impacts, WDFW’s authority was also expanded to regulate and license commercial whale watching vessels. Learn more about this effort. 
  • Additional protection for habitat, forage fish, and salmon: Expanded authority regarding construction projects (via Hydraulic Project Approvals) built in aquatic environments that can affect forage fish and salmon, with Chinook salmon being a preferred part of the southern resident killer whale diet. The legislation also requires anyone fishing for smelt in marine waters to obtain a license to provide for better management of this important forage fish species. It also directed the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission to adopt rules to loosen bag limits for bass, walleye, and channel catfish in waters with salmon, to reduce the number of smolts eaten by predators. 
  • Increased hatchery fish: Funding to increase the number of salmon produced at hatcheries. WDFW increased production by 7 million fish that year and will be increasing production in 2019 by at least 5.5 million fish.

How you can help 

  • Be Whale Wise: Noise makes it harder for whales to hunt successfully. Stay out of the path of orcas of at least 400 yards in front of or behind them and 300 yards on either side. Learn more at bewhalewise.org
  • Consider volunteering to restore salmon habitat. Contact your local Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group to learn more about opportunities, such as tree plantings or work parties, to give back to streams and rivers in your community. 
  • Support clean, healthy water. Whether it's fixing a car leak, or planting native plants in your yard, there are a lot of small ways you can support clean, healthy water. Visit Puget Sound Starts Here to learn more. Consider products that are safer for the environment. Look for the Environmental Protection Agency's Safer Choice label to limit the use of chemicals that end up in our waterways. 
  • Be an Orca Steward! Learn more about additional ways you can help the Southern Residents from our friends at The Whale Museum

Resources

Information and guidelines

Killer whale information and fact sheets

State and federal policies and management