Killer whale (orca) conservation and management

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is currently developing a commercial whale-watching licensing program. To  learn more, visit the commercial whale-watching licensing program webpage, and sign up to receive updates.

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: 

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
  • 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. 

Resources

Information and guidelines

Killer whale information and fact sheets

State and federal policies and management