J-46 and J-34 near West Seattle, courtesy of Kersti Muul
SRKW in Active Pass, by Karoline Cullen 2016
The southern resident orcas (J, K and L pods) are listed as an endangered species in both the US and Canada. With just 75 individuals in the population, they are nearing their historical low of 71 whales. If the current trend continues, these beloved and iconic pods will go extinct in less than 100 years.
The threats that have brought them to this edge are all human-caused: lack of salmon, toxin accumulations, and vessel noise and disturbance. These work together like a three-legged stool, each impacting the other.
- Toxins like PCBs are stored in the orcas’ blubber and mother’s milk.
- When whales are stressed or hungry, the toxins may be released into their bloodstream, making them more susceptible to disease.
- Boat noise makes it harder for the orcas to hunt and find food, which makes them stressed and hungry.
Orcas are acoustic animals. They rely on sound to find and catch their prey, and to communicate with each other. A recent(Tollit et al 2017)shows that the southern residents lose 5.5 hours of foraging time each day due to noise and disturbance from commercial vessels and whale-watching boats specifically.It doesn’t matter how many salmon are in the sea if the orcas can’t hear to find them.
The best available science shows that to recover the orcas, we must both increase the amount of salmon and decrease the amount of noise. Increasing salmon by 15 percent and decreasing noise by 50 percent will achieve NOAA’s recovery goal of 2.3 percent population growth per year.
NOAA’s research also shows that prolonged exposure to noise and disturbance (12+ hours daily, as the orcas experience during the summer) have negative impacts on foraging efficiency, social cohesion, and reproductive capacity including fetal growth.
NOAA Fisheries is the U.S. agency responsible for managing and recovering the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Learn more about NOAA’s recovery efforts
Fisheries and Oceans Canada is the agency responsible for managing and recovering the Southern Resident Killer Whales in Canada. Learn more about Canadian efforts
In May 2018, Governor Jay Inslee signed an executive order to protect and recover the southern residents. The order established a Task Force, which was charged with delivering a set of recommended actions by November 16.
Three working groups were formed to support the Task Force. The working groups were organized around the key threats: Prey, Contaminants, and Vessel Impacts. Whale Trail Founder Donna Sandstrom is a member of the Task Force and the Vessel Impacts Working Group.
In November 2016 the Task Force recommended a robust set of 36 action to protect the orcas, including to suspend whale-watching on the southern residents for 3 to 5 years, and to establish a limited entry permitting system for the whale-watching industry. The Task Force voted near-unanimously to support these measures.
In December 2018 Governor Inslee announced his Orca Recovery package, including many of the recommendations put forward by the Task Force.
The action now moves to the Washington State Legislature, where 8 bills supporting orca recovery have been introduced.
HB 1578 – Lekanoff on improving the safety of oil transportation (oil safety)
HB 1579 – Fitzgibbon on increasing Chinook Abundance (Habitat- HPA and shoreline armoring) –
HB 1580 – Blake on protection of SR orca from vessels (vessel noise)
Hearing set for 2/5, 10 AM, House Hearing Rm B, John L. O’Brien Building, Olympia, WA
SB 5577 – Rolfes on protection of SR orca whales from vessels (vessel noise)
SB 5578 – Van de Wege on improving the safety of oil transportation (oil safety)
SB 5580 – Rolfes on increasing habitat and forage fish abundance (Habitat – HPA and shoreline armoring)
Follow (and participate in!) the legislative action by searching by bill number here.
Learn more about the Task Force and recommended actions here.
A parallel effort is underway in Canada, with recommendations due from their committees in March.
We encourage everyone to participate in this process. Let your voice be heard. Speak up now, for the whales, when it matters. If we postpone or delay taking meaningful measures now to protect the orcas, it will be too late.
The Whale Trail was founded to promote awareness of and stewardship for the southern resident orcas. While our range and scope have expanded, we remain laser-focused on their recovery.
Working with partners from California to British Columbia, we are building awareness of the orcas throughout their range, along the Pacific Coast and around the Salish Sea.
- Our sites and signs educate a broad and diverse public about who the southern residents are, where they live, that that they are endangered and how we can each and all help.
- By making it easy to watch whales from shore, we provide ways to encounter the southern residents without adding to the noise and disturbance around them.
- Our programs like Orca Tours and Orca Talks bring communities together to learn about whales. We have piloted unique and innovative programs like Orca Stewardship certifications and Orca Shuttles on San Juan Island.
- And the whales are near, our shore based naturalists make sure that everyone can see them, and leaves the encounter knowing more about the SRKW and what we can each and all can do to help them recover.
The Whale Trail is specifically called out in NOAA’s Killer Whale Recovery Plan.
Our shared vision is a fully recovered orca population, thriving in healthy seas.