Saving the Southern Resident Killer Whales
Working with partners and communities to recover this iconic population
The Southern Resident killer whale is a West Coast icon and one of NOAA’s nine Species in the Spotlight. While other killer whale populations are thriving, the Southern Residents are struggling to survive against multiple threats. We work to recover this culturally important West Coast species and the ecosystem we share through habitat restoration, salmon recovery, noise and disturbance reductions, limiting pollution, and more.
Our research program creates the scientific foundation for action. We monitor the population and learn about the threats to their recovery. These findings inform recovery actions that help reduce the severity of threats so the whales have adequate food, clean water, and a healthy ecosystem.
We don’t work alone. Countless groups and individuals along the West Coast and around the globe are taking action. Saving the Southern Resident killer whales requires all of us to do our part. Sign up for NOAA Fisheries email updates to stay up to date, take action by joining and volunteering with community groups, and read on to learn how you can help save the Southern Residents.
Meet the Southern Residents
Southern Residents are intelligent and social animals. They form tight communities generally led by their mothers. They use a sophisticated series of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls to communicate and hunt for Chinook salmon, their preferred prey. Southern Residents are also recognized for their cultural and spiritual importance to coastal tribes and communities.
During the 1970’s the Southern Resident population was substantially affected by the live aquaria trade. The population briefly rebounded in the 1990s, only to begin an alarming decline a decade later. In 2005, they were added to the endangered species list and currently number less than 80 individuals.
Action Rooted in Science
The latest science and information guides everything we do for these animals. We manage a robust research program and work with other researchers to find answers to the most pressing management questions.
Our scientists continue to uncover new information about the whales’ behavior, social structure, and health. We observe the whales on the water, under the waves, and from the air. We use the latest technology in the field and in the lab to gather evidence and test assumptions. These facts are shared with other researchers and provide the basis for management and regulatory actions.
Southern Residents Face Many Threats
The research identifies three main threats to their survival—vessel traffic noise and disturbance, health and contaminants, and prey availability. These factors compound each other. Ongoing research continues to reveal emerging threats to the whales, the extent of these impacts are still unknown.
Read on below to explore what we are doing with partners to better understand, address, and minimize these threats.
Health and Contaminants
Southern Residents accumulate pollutants from the fish they eat. These contaminants affect their general health and ability to reproduce. We monitor the effects of pollutants and the health of individual whales. We use new technology to examine samples, measure body condition from drones, and use genetic tools to explore the population structure, mating patterns, and demographics.
Vessel Traffic Noise and Disturbance
Vessel noise can interfere with the whales’ ability to eat, rest, and reproduce. We have implemented boating regulations to reduce underwater noise and vessel disturbances, spread the word to give the whales extra space, and researched the impacts of a noisy environment on the whales using digital acoustic recording tags.
Salmon are an essential part of Southern Resident killer whales’ diet, particularly Chinook salmon. Many salmon populations are also threatened or endangered. Salmon stock management and recovery are critical to the survival of these whales. Restoring and conserving salmon habitat helps recover salmon populations, and considering the whales’ needs in management actions, such as fisheries, will help protect prey availability for these whales.
Research continues to reveal new threats. For example, our genetic studies show that the whales’ small population size is likely to affect resiliency and compromise adult survival.
A Path Toward Recovery
Today, the population remains near its lowest point in the last 30 years, increasing the urgency of recovery. Alongside our partners, we have worked on a suite of actions to move the population towards recovery. Some activities will immediately reduce pressure on the whales, while others require ecosystem-wide shifts and will take longer to implement. A few examples, include:
- Considering Southern Resident prey needs in the management of salmon fisheries.
- Prioritizing restoration funding to support Chinook salmon stocks identified as important to the whales
- Prioritizing salmon habitat restoration projects that are most important to Southern Residents prey stocks.
- Restoring spawning and rearing habitat for salmon stocks the whales depend on for food.
- Focusing on restoring Puget Sound nearshore habitat where juvenile fish grow.
Working Together to Save the Southern Residents
We cannot recover these whales alone. Our partners are instrumental in the recovery of Southern Residents. Get inspired from their impactful work:
- WA State Orca Recovery
Implementation of recommendations from Governor Inslee’s Task Force.
- Be Whale Wise
This coordinated effort between the U.S. and Canada is dedicated to educating the public about boating and kayaking regulations.
- Oil Spill Response
Developed with our partners, we have plans in place to divert endangered whales from potential harm.
- Killer Whale Tales
This environmental education program uses storytelling and field based science to inspire students to take an active role in the conservation of Southern Residents and their habitat.
- Orca Action Month
June is Orca Awareness Month, which was created to inspire action on behalf of our region’s critically endangered Southern Residents.
- Quiet Sound
A collaborative program to reduce noise impacts to Southern Residents from large commercial vessels.
- Whale Trail
A network of more than 100 shoreside whale watching sites.
Whether you live a few minutes or a few hours from the coast, there are ways that you can make a difference for Southern Residents. To start, volunteer with one of our partners, watch the whales from a distance, and make sustainable choices at home, work, and school. It will take all of us working together to recover this iconic species.
Education and Outreach
Whether you’re looking to educate your students or a neighbor about Southern Residents, we have lesson plans, posters, and brochures in English and Spanish to support your efforts. If you’d like to work with us to develop Southern Resident education or outreach programming, please reach out to email@example.com.
Our partners also offer education and outreach programming:
Host a School Presentation
Killer Whale Tales offers free programs on Southern Residents for students throughout Puget Sound.
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On our Southern Residents Connection blog, you'll hear from marine mammal scientists, recovery managers, fish biologists, and others who are working to understand and address the risks to Southern Residents.