Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Planning and Implementation
In 2008, NOAA Fisheries developed a final Recovery Plan for Southern Resident killer whales, to identify and address threats to the species. NOAA Fisheries has been working with partners to implement the recovery actions identified in the plan.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires the Secretary of Commerce to develop and implement recovery plans for the conservation and survival of listed species. The Recovery Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales (2008) reviews and assesses the potential factors affecting the species, and lays out a recovery program to address each of the threats.
There is considerable uncertainty about which threats may be responsible for the decline in the orca population, or which is the most important to address for recovery. The plan lays out an adaptive management approach and a recovery strategy that addresses each of the potential threats based on the best available science. The recovery program links the management actions to an active research program to fill data gaps and to a monitoring program to assess effectiveness. Feedback from research and monitoring will provide the information necessary to refine ongoing actions and develop and prioritize new actions.
We and a variety of partners have been implementing actions identified in the recovery plan for many years. Actions that were funded and implemented in 2003-2007 are listed in the plan’s implementation schedule. The sections below provide examples of recent actions and links to our partnerships for the major threats and topic headings identified in the Recovery Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales.
In 2014, NOAA Fisheries released a report highlighting the accomplishments of 10 years of dedicated research and conservation of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population. With a decade of federal funding and productive partnerships with the killer whale community, we have taken targeted actions, collected substantial new data, and refined scientific techniques to protect this listed species and ensure a strong foundation for its recovery.
In 2016, NOAA Fisheries identified Southern Resident killer whales as one of eight species that were most at-risk of extinction. As a result, we developed the Species in the Spotlight 5-Year Priority Action Plan to guide agency actions where we have the discretion to make critical investments to safeguard this species, without diverting resources away from continued efforts to support all ESA-listed species. This Plan is designed to highlight the actions that can be taken by NOAA Fisheries, other federal and state resource agencies, Native American Tribes, environmental non-governmental organizations, and other partners to turn the trend around for this species towards recovery.
NOAA Fisheries also participated in the Washington State Governor’s Task Force beginning in 2018. Established by Executive Order 18-02, the Task Force was directed to identify immediate and long term actions to benefit Southern Resident killer whales. The Task Force included representation from tribal, federal, state, and local agencies, the Washington State Legislature, the private sector, nonprofit organizations, and the Canadian government. The first report of the Task Force containing their recommendations to the State was released in November 2018. These recommendations led to five new Washington State laws addressing lack of prey availability, vessel disturbance, and the risk of oil spills.
We track federal spending as included in the implementation schedule, and funded projects are reported in the Recovery Action Mapping Tool (RAMT).
Healthy killer whale populations are dependent on adequate prey levels. Reductions in prey availability may force whales to spend more time foraging and might lead to reduced reproductive rates and higher mortality rates. Southern Resident killer whales have experienced significant changes in food availability during the past 150 years because of human impacts on prey species.
Wild salmon have declined primarily because of degradation of aquatic ecosystems resulting from modern land use changes, overharvesting, and hatchery production. The Final Recovery Plan calls for support of ongoing restoration efforts for depleted salmon populations:
1.1 Rebuild depleted populations of salmon and other prey to ensure an adequate food base for recovery of the Southern Residents.
1.1.1 Support salmon restoration efforts in the region.
1.1.2 Support regional restoration efforts for other prey species.
1.1.3 Use NMFS authorities under the ESA and the MSFCMA to protect prey habitat, regulate harvest, and operate hatcheries.
Recent decades have brought rising concern over the adverse environmental effects resulting from the use and disposal of numerous chemical compounds in industry, agriculture, households, and medical treatment. Many types of chemicals are toxic when present in high concentrations. Chemical compounds are of concern because of their ability to induce immune suppression, reproductive impairment, and other physiological damage, as observed in other marine mammals. Contaminants enter marine waters and sediments from numerous sources, but are typically concentrated near areas of high human population and industrialization. Freshwater contamination is also of concern because of its impacts on salmon populations during sensitive life stages.
Because of projected human population growth in the region in coming decades, especially in Puget Sound and the Georgia Basin, greater efforts will be needed by governments, industry, and the public to minimize pollution. The Final Recovery Plan calls for clean-up of contaminated sites, and monitoring and minimizing inputs of toxic chemicals into the whales' habitat and food chain:
1.2 Minimize pollution and chemical contamination in Southern Resident habitats.
Partnership with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Region 10
1.2.1 Clean up contaminated sites and sediments.
1.2.2 Minimize continuing inputs of contaminants into the environment.
1.2.3 Minimize contamination in prey.
PBDE report, Partnership with U.S. EPA Region 10: This report describing results from a series of technical workshops about the potential effects of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) on Puget Sound and Southern Resident killer whales.
Vessel Effects and Sound
Many marine mammal populations may be experiencing increased exposure to vessels and associated sounds. Commercial shipping, whale watching, ferry operations, and recreational boating traffic have expanded in many regions in recent decades, including the northeastern Pacific. Commercial fishing boats are also a prominent part of the vessel traffic in many areas.
Vessels have the potential to affect whales through the physical presence and activity of the vessel, the increased underwater sound levels generated by boat engines or a combination of these factors. The Final Recovery Plan identifies continued improvement of guidelines for viewing the whales and evaluating the need for regulations or protected areas:
1.3 Minimize disturbance of Southern Resident killer whales from vessels.
Land based whale watching:
1.3.1 Monitor vessel activity around whales.
1.3.2 Continue to evaluate and improve voluntary whale-watching guidelines.
- Be Whale Wise: Marine Wildlife Guidelines for Boaters, Paddlers & Viewers
- Kayaker Code of Conduct, called K.E.L.P.
1.3.3 Evaluate the need to establish regulations regarding vessel activity in the vicinity of killer whales.
- Vessel Regulations
- Washington State law protecting Southern Residents
- Killer Whale Protection Workshop Notes (March 2013)
- Technical Memo (2017): Reducing Disturbance from Vessels to Southern Resident Killer Whales: Assessing the Effectiveness of the 2011 Federal Regulations in Advancing Recovery Goals
1.3.4 Evaluate the need to establish areas with restrictions on vessel traffic.
Oil spills have been identified as a risk to killer whales and other marine mammals. Preventing an oil spill is the best way to protect whales and the environment. In the event of a spill, however, it’s important for us to be prepared for a response that will minimize impacts. The Final Recovery Plan includes actions to minimize the risk of oil spills, including developing strategies to deter whales from entering spilled oil.
2.1 Minimize the risk of oil spills:
2.1.1 Prevent oil spills.
2.1.2 Prepare for and respond to oil spills to minimize their effects on Southern Resident killer whales.
2.1.3 Develop strategies to deter killer whales from entering spilled oil.
The Northwest Area Contingency Plan is the guidance for spill response in the Northwest. Under it, the Wildlife Branch coordinates all personnel working with wildlife, including federal, state and local agencies, and commercial and non-profit organizations. This oil spill response plan includes information on some tools and techniques that could be used to minimize exposure of killer whales to spilled oil. It's designed to inform the Wildlife Branch, in coordination with NOAA Fisheries, about options for monitoring and hazing whales during an oil spill response.
The Wildlife Response Plan section on killer whales was drafted from information gathered at an October 2007 meeting jointly hosted by NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Region and the SeaDoc Society, a program of the University of California-Davis Wildlife Health Center, School of Veterinary Medicine. Detailed meeting notes, including literature cited, are available on the SeaDoc Society website.
- Northwest Area Contingency Plan, 9310 - Northwest Wildlife Response Plan (see Killer whale section starting on page 9310-27)
- Oil Spill Response - Killer Whale Hazing Implementation Plan
- NOAA Oil Spill Response & Killer Whales
Killer whale strandings are relatively rare in the northeastern Pacific and normally involve single animals. Strandings generate intense scientific and public interest. Successful responses to strandings must address both interests in a timely and consistent manner. Improved reporting of stranded whales by educating the public and other monitoring efforts are crucial to enabling response. Any marine mammal stranding occurring from central California to northern British Columbia could involve Southern Resident killer whales and should be responded to in a way that ensures that a rare opportunity to obtain samples and measurements is not lost. Samples and measurements obtained during killer whale strandings increase knowledge of orca physiology.
Marine mammal stranding investigations in Washington and Oregon are conducted by the Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which includes resource agencies, local officials, veterinarians, biologists, and volunteer individuals and organizations. Strandings in British Columbia are handled through the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center and Fisheries & Oceans Canada. Stranded marine mammals provide information on ocean health and give clues to the threats that marine mammals face. The Final Recovery Plan addresses killer whale strandings:
4. Respond to killer whales that are stranded, sick, injured, isolated, pose a threat to the public, or exhibit nuisance behaviors.
4.1 Manage atypical individual Southern Residents.
- J50, Southern Resident Killer Whale: Medical Response Efforts
- Questions & Answers about the J50 Medical Response Efforts
- Springer, A73
- Final Rule to include Lolita in the endangered species listing (February 10, 2015): NOAA Fisheries published a Federal Register notice that includes Lolita, a captive killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium, in the endangered species listing for the Southern Resident killer whales. The decision does not impact her residence at the Miami Seaquarium. For more information, see the Questions & Answers on the final rule
4.2 Respond to strandings of killer whales.
- J34 Initial Necropsy Results, December 2016
- L112 Stranding Final Report, October 2016
- L95 Final Necropsy Report, September 2016
- L95 Expert Panel Report, September 2016
- J32 Final Necropsy Report, September 2016
- J32 (fetus) Final Necropsy Report, September 2016
- J32 Stranding Progress Report, December 16, 2014
- Killer whale necropsy protocols, 2014
- J-Pod Calf Stranding, February 2013
- L112 Stranding Progress Report 2, May 2012
- L112 Stranding Progress Report 1, April 2012
4.3 Respond to future resource conflicts between the Southern Residents and humans.
Monitoring and Research
Research is necessary to better understand the effects of potential risk factors that have been linked to periods of decline in the Southern Resident killer whales. Study results will be an important resource for developing science-based management actions to address the threats. Many research tasks should involve repeated sampling efforts to monitor trends and to assess the effectiveness of management actions. Monitoring is necessary to track the status of this orca population and the effectiveness of the conservation measures. Research and monitoring will support an adaptive management approach; as we obtain new information, we can adjust priorities.
A. Monitor status and trends of the Southern Resident killer whale population.
B. Conduct research to facilitate and enhance recovery efforts for Southern Resident killer whales.
- Northwest Fisheries Science Center Marine Mammal Program
- 2014, Special Report of Research and Conservation
- 2015, Workshop to Assess Causes of Decreased Survival and Reproduction in Southern Resident Killer Whales: Priorities Report
- 2017, Review of recent research on southern resident killer whales to detect evidence of poor body condition in the population
Education and Outreach
Public attitudes are a major part of the success or failure of conservation efforts for most endangered species, especially those occurring near major population centers. Killer whales already enjoy widespread popularity among much of the public living in coastal regions of western North America, but much remains to be done to publicize the plight of the Southern Resident killer whale population and to discourage potentially harmful human activities. Many organizations are involved in enhancing public awareness, educating the public on actions they can take to conserve killer whales, and improving public reporting of sightings and strandings. The Final Recovery Plan encourages these efforts:
3. Develop public information and education programs.
- West Coast Region Killer Whale High School Curriculum
- The Whale Museum
- Seattle Aquarium
- Killer Whale Tales
- Northwest Fisheries Science Center
- The Whale Trail
- Orca Network
- Port Townsend Marine Science Center
- Whale Scout
3.1 Enhance public awareness of Southern Resident status and threats.
3.2 Expand information and education programs to reduce direct vessel interactions with Southern Resident killer whales.
- Be Whale Wise: Marine Wildlife Guidelines for Boaters, Paddlers & Viewers
- The Whale Museum's Watching Whales in the San Juan Islands
3.3 Educate the public on positive actions that they can take to improve environmental conditions for Southern Resident killer whales.
- Seattle Aquarium's Orcas in Puget Sound 10 ways to help
- Port Townsend Marine Science Center Stewardship Actions
- Center for Whale Research, Conservation Actions
3.4 Solicit the public’s assistance in finding killer whales.
Coordination and Cooperation
Southern Resident killer whales are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Washington State's killer whales were added to the state's list of endangered species in 2004. In Canada, the Southern and Northern Residents are listed as endangered and threatened, respectively, under the Species at Risk Act.
These designations carry with them an added responsibility for resource agencies to prepare plans or strategies to recover these populations to a healthy condition. The definitions and mandates imposed by each listing are specific to the laws or regulations under which each of the listings are made. Nevertheless, the overarching goals of conservation and population recovery are remarkably similar regardless of jurisdiction. The Final Recovery Plan calls for recovery plans and research efforts to be coordinated within and among responsible federal, state, or provincial agencies, to ensure that conservation goals are met and that resources for conservation are optimized: