Species in the Spotlight: Southern Resident Killer Whale
New! Souther Resident Killer Whale Action Plan (PDF)
Learn more about our work on Chinook habitat restoration in Puget Sound's watershed below.
What Can You Do?
The Southern Resident killer whale is one of
NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight.
The endangered Southern Resident killer whale is an icon of the Pacific northwest and inspires widespread public interest, curiosity, and awe around the globe. Southern Residents are also among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world.
The population census in the summer of 2014 counted only 78 whales. In 2003, NOAA Fisheries began a research and conservation program with congressional funding, and the Southern Residents were listed as endangered in 2005 under the Endangered Species Act.
The population continues to struggle and has declined over 10 percent since 2005. We have come a long way in our understanding and ability to protect this unique population and in 2014, we summarized a decade of research and conservation activities in a special report.
Check out the video below to learn more about our efforts to recover the Southern Resident killer whale, including ten years of research and conservation activities.
Noise and overcrowding from boat traffic, as well as a scarce supply of their preferred food—salmon—pose serious threats to this endangered population. We need to focus efforts and make critical investments within NOAA Fisheries and continue to engage vital partners to stabilize and prevent the Southern Resident killer whale’s extinction. Past research has shown that some of the most important threats facing the whales, such as prey limitation and high contaminant levels, cannot be addressed without a long-term commitment. Recovery of threatened salmon, for example, is a monumental task in itself and is expected to take many years.
The threat of contaminants is also challenging, particularly considering that the whales remain contaminated by chemicals that were banned decades ago. Some mysteries also persist. For example, will increases in salmon abundance benefit the Southern Resident whales, or will any increases be consumed by other populations such as the Northern Resident killer whales? Are there health issues, like disease, that we have not yet uncovered? We also must consider new threats and actions as we look to a future with climate change, new alternative ocean energy projects, and continuing development along our coasts and in our ports. In the next 5 to 10 years, several high-priority projects are planned to help answer these remaining questions and inform management actions to advance recovery.
With 10 years of funding, collaboration, and ingenuity we have taken substantial and important steps to aid Southern Resident killer whale recovery. Research projects have illuminated new aspects of killer whale biology, behavior, and ecology and helped us better understand the challenges this population faces. Targeted management actions, informed by research, have been taken to secure protections for the whales and their habitat, including:
- Designation of more than 2,500 square miles of critical habitat.
- Regulations to protect the whales from vessel impacts.
- Coordination with coastwide efforts to implement salmon recovery actions.
- Collaboration with partners on monitoring and minimization of harmful contaminants.
- Oil spill response plans to ensure we are prepared in the event of a spill.
Understanding the factors that affect the whales’ health will help us identify the most important threats, how they interact, and what we can do to reduce their impacts. New technologies are being developed to better understand risks of disease, assess individual body condition, and gain a better understanding of the health effects of carrying large contaminant burdens. We also plan to explore additional management actions outlined in the recovery plan to stabilize the population. We are developing a 5-year plan of action that builds on the recovery plan and details the focused efforts that are needed over the next 5 years.
Recovery of the Southern Residents and their preferred salmon prey, as well as protection of their broad and diverse habitat, is a long-term process that requires support over a large geographic area, from California to Southeast Alaska. A key to the continued success of research and conservation programs is leveraging resources and maximizing impact through partnerships. For example, the whales spend significant time in Canadian waters and are listed as endangered under the Canadian Species At Risk Act, so transboundary coordination has been, and will continue to be, important to recovery.
Our recovery criteria are built around a timeframe of 14 to 28 years based on the biology of these long-lived animals. It will take at least that long for us to evaluate the effectiveness of the protective measures put in place in the past several years. The past 10 years of federal funding and effort have secured a strong foundation of research and conservation, which we can build on to secure recovery of this iconic species for future generations