Killer whale (orca) conservation and management

Orca breaching in Puget Sound
Ken Rea

Be Whale Wise this boating season

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

Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, Southern Residents face three main threats: a lack of food, contaminants in their food, and vessel noise and disturbance as they forage and communicate using echolocation.

A key finding from research that NOAA Fisheries published in 2021 indicated the effects of vessel noise are especially prominent for females, which often cease foraging when boats approach within 400 yards. Research shows this tendency to stop foraging when boats are nearby may be most concerning for pregnant or nursing mothers that need to find more food to support calves. 

This is especially critical given the low percentage of breeding females in the Southern Resident population and challenges with successful births and calf survival.  

Recreational boaters can do their part to help by: 

  • Giving Southern Residents at least 300 yards on either side and 400 yards in front of and behind them
  • Reducing their speed to seven knots within one-half nautical mile of Southern Residents.
  • In areas where Southern Residents may be present, setting depth finders to 200 kHz frequency or temporarily turning them off. Underwater transducers, such as depth finders, can overlap with echolocation frequencies that Southern Resident killer whales use to find food, communicate, and travel through Washington’s waters. 
  • Watching for the Whale Warning Flag, an optional tool from the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee that lets others know that there are whales nearby. If boaters see the flag, they should slow down and continue to follow Be Whale Wise regulations and guidelines. 

Learn more at bewhalewise.org and in our video below. 

If you observe harassment or disturbance of marine mammals, please help by reporting it as soon as possible to NOAA Fisheries enforcement hotline at 1-800-853-1964 or the WDFW enforcement line at 877-933-9847 and/or or report online at bewhalewise.org. For offenses in progress, please call 911.

Supporting orca recovery 

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 iconic animals 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: 

  • Carefully managing fisheries to avoid impacts to killer whale and Chinook salmon recovery, including a new 10-year Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan. Learn more about sustainable salmon for Southern Resident orcas and people in our blog post.
  • Leading salmon habitat restoration projects throughout Puget Sound.
  • Supporting additional protections for forage fish and salmon. 
  • Increase the number of salmon produced at hatcheries by more than 26 million annually and making improvements to state hatcheries. Learn more in our video
  • Increasing spill over the Columbia and Snake river dams benefit Chinook salmon, a major part of the Southern Resident killer whale diet. 
  • Decreasing impacts of predatory fish on salmon. The Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted liberalized bag limits for bass, walleye, and channel catfish in December 2019. These limits went into effect February 17, 2020.
  • Developing a comprehensive state statewide culvert remediation plan to support orca and salmon recovery the the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board. 
  • Expanding 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. 
  • Ramping up outreach and education, and enforcement of Be Whale Wise regulations to protect SRKW. Watch our Be Whale Wise video
  • Adopting rules for commercial viewing of Southern Residents. Learn more on our Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program web page

Learn more in our blog post

How you can help 

  • Follow Be Whale Wise regulations and guidelines outlined above.
  • Report sightings to WhaleReport: If you see a whale from land or at sea, report your sighting to WhaleReport. Reporting your sightings to WhaleReport is the fastest and most reliable way to ensure that large vessel operators and WDFW Enforcement are aware of whales’ presence. The more that people use Whale Report, the better protected the whales will be. Download from the App Store or Google Play.
  • 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.
  • Opt for a personalized license plate.  For more than 40 years, the sale of personalized license plates has been the primary source of funding for the management of endangered wildlife, including killer whales. You can buy personalized plates through the Washington Department of Licensing — initial fees and renewal fee varies by location and type of vehicle. A portion of sales — $2 from each plate purchased — supports the care and rehabilitation of sick, injured or orphaned wildlife. 
  • 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

Adaptive management resources