Species in the Spotlight

Souther Resident Killer Whale

The Southern Resident killer whale is one of NOAA Fisheries’ Species in the Spotlight. This initiative is a concerted agency-wide effort to spotlight and save the most at-risk marine species.

Species in the Spotlight logo.

The endangered Southern Resident 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 at the end of 2016 counted only 78 Southern Resident killer 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. A recovery plan was completed in 2008.

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

    Where Southern Resident Killer Whales Live

    During the spring, summer, and fall, the range of Southern Resident killer whales includes the inland waterways of Washington State and the transboundary waters between the United States and Canada. We know less about their winter movements and range. They have been spotted as far south as central California during the winter months and as far north as Southeast Alaska. In recent years we have learned much more about their coastal habitat use through our Northwest Fisheries Science Center's satellite tagging work.

    Population Status

    Scientists estimate the minimum historical population of Southern Residents numbered about 140 animals. Following a live-capture fishery in the 1960s, 71 animals remained in 1974. Although there was some growth in the population in the 1970s and 1980s, with a peak of 98 animals in 1995, the population experienced a decline of almost 20 percent in the late 1990s, leaving 80 whales in 2001.

    Threats

    Noise and overcrowding from boat traffic, as well as a scarce supply of their preferred food—salmon—pose serious threats to this endangered population. It is hoped that focused efforts and critical investments within NOAA Fisheries, and continued engagement with our vital partners, will 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 because 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 salmon predators? 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.

    Research Activities

    New information on coastal distribution and habitat use, gathered from both acoustic monitoring and satellite tagging, will inform designation of additional critical habitat for the whales. Seasonal health assessments, habitat use, times and places with prey limitations, and  vessel impacts that affect health or feeding will all be taken into consideration when determining the need for additional conservation actions.

    Species Recovery

    With more than 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. In 2016, we completed a Species in the Spotlight 5-Year Plan of Action (PDF, 1.1MB) that builds on the recovery plan and details the focused efforts that are needed over the next five 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. The continued success of research and conservation programs relies on  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 14 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.

    Learn more about our accomplishments of more than a decade of dedicated research and conservation of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale