Management Overview

Killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The AT1 Transient population is also considered depleted under the MMPA. Not all killer whales are listed under the Endangered Species Act. However, Southern Resident killer whales have been listed as endangered under the ESA since 2005. This means that the population of Southern Residents is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

We work to protect all populations of killer whales. However, our management work primarily focuses on recovery of the endangered Southern Resident population.

Recovery Planning and Implementation

Recovery Action

Under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries develops and implements recovery plans for the conservation and survival of listed species. The ultimate goal of the Southern Resident killer whale plan is to recover the species, with an interim goal of down-listing its status from endangered to threatened.

The major actions recommended in the plan are:

  • Support salmon restoration efforts in the region to ensure an adequate prey base.
  • Reduce existing and monitor emerging contaminants.
  • Reduce vessel impacts by improving whale watching guidelines and establishing regulations or protected areas as needed.
  • Prevent oil spills and improve response preparation.
  • Use available protections to minimize impacts from human-caused sound.
  • Enhance public awareness and education.
  • Improve responses to live and dead killer whales.
  • Coordinate efforts with Canadian agencies, and with U.S. federal and state partners.
  • Conduct research to facilitate conservation efforts.

Read the recovery plan for Southern Resident killer whales (PDF, 1.7MB).

Two southern resident killer whales.

Two Southern Resident killer whales. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Implementation

The ESA authorizes NOAA Fisheries to appoint recovery teams to help develop and implement recovery plans. Rather than convening a recovery team for Southern Resident killer whales, we used an open public process to engage as many interested stakeholder groups and individuals as possible.

Critical Habitat Designation

Once a species is listed under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries evaluates and identifies whether any areas meet the definition of critical habitat. Those areas may be designated as critical habitat through a rulemaking process. The designation of an area as critical habitat does not create a closed area, marine protected area, refuge, wilderness reserve, preservation, or other conservation area; nor does the designation affect land ownership. Federal agencies that undertake, fund, or permit activities that may affect these designated critical habitat areas are required to consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure that their actions do not adversely modify or destroy designated critical habitat.

In 2006, NOAA Fisheries designated inland waters of Washington State as critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whale. We designated this habitat because it contains three features essential to the conservation of Southern Residents:

  • Water quality to support growth and development.
  • Enough prey to support individual growth, reproduction, and development, as well as overall population growth.
  • Passage conditions to allow for migration, resting, and foraging.

In 2014, NOAA Fisheries started a process to revise the critical habitat of Southern Residents in response to a petition (PDF, 35 pages). 

Learn more about critical habitat for Southern Resident killer whales.

View the Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat map (PDF, 1 page).

Conservation Efforts

Supporting Salmon Restoration Efforts

Chinook salmon stocks are currently lower than historic levels, putting Southern Resident killer whales at risk for decreased reproductive rates and increased mortality rates. Some species of West Coast salmon are currently protected under the ESA and Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. NOAA Fisheries coordinates habitat restoration efforts in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California to help restore salmon runs. Our scientists have also organized workshops and panels to better understand the effects of salmon fisheries on Southern Resident killer whales.

Learn more about salmon restoration

Reducing Contaminants

Killer whales are especially vulnerable to chemical contaminants because they are at the top of the food chain. To address this, NOAA joined the Puget Sound Partnership, a program that helps prevent contamination in Southern Resident habitat and collaborated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington State agencies to develop a plan to fill gaps in research and monitoring. NOAA's Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program, which cleans up existing contamination, also has several active projects in the Pacific Northwest and California.

Learn more about environmental contaminants

Preventing Oil Spills and Improving Response Preparation

Southern Resident killer whales are at risk of harm in the event of an oil spill. To reduce the risk of a spill, Washington’s Department of Ecology created the Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program. To minimize the effect of a potential spill on Southern Residents, NOAA developed the Marine Mammal Oil Spill Response Guidelines (PDF, 150 pages). Additionally, the Northwest Area Contingency Plan (PDF, 51 pages) includes methods to discourage killer whales from swimming into spilled oil.

Learn more about preventing oil spills

Minimizing Impacts from Human-Caused Sound

Ocean noise threatens killer whale populations by interrupting their normal behavior. In 2011, NOAA Fisheries adopted regulations that prohibit vessels from approaching killer whales in inland waters of Washington State within 200 yards. We also encourage land-based whale watching as a way to enjoy viewing without any impacts.

Learn more about minimizing disturbance of Southern Resident killer whales from vessels

Learn more about ocean noise

Coordinating with Canadian Agencies, and U.S. Federal and State Partners

Because Southern Residents range from California to Alaska, recovery of their population requires cooperation across state and national borders. NOAA is coordinating with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Center for Whale Research, and other partners to conduct research and implement recovery actions.

Learn more about interagency coordination and cooperation

Developing Vessel Regulations and Minimizing Whale Watching Harassment

NOAA Fisheries supports responsible viewing of marine mammals in the wild and has adopted a guideline to observe all marine mammals from a safe distance of at least 100 yards by sea or land. 

We have also taken steps to reduce threats to killer whales by regulating how close a vessel may get to the species in Washington State. This reduces disturbance to the animal and the potential for negative interaction. These regulations make it illegal to:

  • Approach within 200 yards of a Southern Resident killer whale.
  • Position a vessel to be in the path of a Southern Resident whale at any point located within 400 yards of the whale.
  • Fail to disengage the transmission of a vessel that is within 200 yards of a Southern Resident killer whale.
  • Feed a Southern Resident killer whale.

Learn more about vessel regulation in Washington State

WhaleSENSE is a voluntary education and recognition program in the U.S. Atlantic and Alaska regions developed by NOAA Fisheries and partners in collaboration with the whale watching industry to recognize whale watching companies committed to responsible practices and minimizing whale watching harassment.

Companies participating in the WhaleSENSE program agree to:

  • Stick to the regional whale watching guidelines.
  • Educate naturalists, captains, and passengers to have “SENSE” while watching whales.
  • Notify and report whales in distress.
  • Set an example for other boaters.
  • Encourage ocean stewardship.

Overseeing Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response

We work with volunteer networks in all coastal states to respond to marine mammal strandings including large whales. When stranded animals are found alive, NOAA Fisheries and our partners assess the animal’s health.  When stranded animals are found dead, our scientists work to understand and investigate the cause of death. Although the cause often remains unknown, scientists can sometimes identify strandings due to disease, harmful algal blooms, vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, pollution exposure, and underwater noise. Some strandings can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health and welfare.

Learn more about the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program

Regulatory History

All marine mammals, including killer whales, are protected in the United States under the MMPA. One population of killer whale—the Southern Resident—is listed as endangered under the ESA.

AT1 Transient Population

In 2002, National Wildlife Federation petitioned (PDF, 10 pages) NOAA Fisheries to designate the AT1 Transient pod as depleted after its drastic decline following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The spill was strongly correlated with the deaths of most of the AT1 Transient pod.  There have been no observed births to the AT1 stock of the North Pacific transient killer whale population since 1984, and the population has steadily declined to 7 individuals.

In 2003, NOAA Fisheries reviewed a petition concerning the possibility that the AT1 killer whale group of Prince William Sound may be genetically distinct from other killer whales in Alaska, and may be depleted.

In 2004, NOAA Fisheries designated the AT1 stock as depleted under the MMPA.

Southern Resident Population

In 2005, the Southern Resident population was listed as endangered under the ESA. We designated critical habitat for Southern Residents in 2006 and a recovery plan (PDF, 1.7MB) was completed in 2008.

In 2015, we issued a 12-month finding on a petition to revise critical habitat for Southern Residents. Revisions are expected in 2017.

In December 2016, we completed a 5-year status review of Southern Resident killer whales (PDF, 385KB).

Key Documents

A complete list of regulatory and management documents for killer whales is available.