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 73 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. (Lacy et al 2017)
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 to the Governor.
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 served as a member of the Task Force and the Vessel Impacts Working Group.
The Task Force submitted its Year One report to the Governor in November 2018. The Task Force recommended a robust set of 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. These were included in in the Governor’s Orca Recovery package, announced in December 2018.
The suspension on whale-watching was not supported by the legislature and it was not enacted. However a licensing system for commercial whale-watching was part of a vessel impacts bill that received overwhelming bipartisan support and was passed in May 2019. Four other orca recovery bills, including regulations to increase habitat protection and reduce toxin inputs also passed. Read about them here.
During its Year Two deliberations, the Task Force added new recommendations to address climate change, population growth, and life after the task force. The final report also included all the recommendations from Year One that were not acted on.
The Task Force delivered a robust set of recommendations that are a blueprint for orca recovery in the state of Washington.The challenge now is to be sure the recommendations are acted on, in time to make a difference for the orcas.
You can read the Year Two (and final) report here.
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.