Southern Resident Killer Whale
Roughly half of all Southern Resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) were removed from the population due to shooting prior to 1960 and live capture in the 1960s and 1970s, but once these activities were banned, the population rebounded from 71 individuals in 1976 to 98 in 1995. However, the population has declined since, and as of June 2019 stands at 76, the lowest it has been in 34 years. The prospects for recovery appear bleak, as since 2015 there has been just one birth that have produced a calf who survived to juvenile age.
Killer whales are found in every ocean, but the species is segmented into many small populations, at least two of which are likely separate species, that differ genetically, as well as in appearance, behavior, social structure, feeding strategies and vocalizations. In the temperate coastal North Pacific, there are three different ‘ecotypes’ of killer whales. The so-called “Resident” killer whales are fish eaters found on both sides of the North Pacific along the coasts. Bigg’s or Transient killer whales are marine mammal hunters and also are found all along the North American coast. The little known “Offshore” killer whales, which feed on schooling fishes and possibly sharks, are found from California to Alaska, mostly along the continental slope, and possibly far out to sea. In the eastern North Pacific, there are three populations of Resident killer whales: Alaska Residents, Northern Residents, and Southern Residents. Southern Residents, which comprise the smallest of the ‘resident’ populations, are found mostly off British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, and occasionally off Alaska or California. Southern Residents are Chinook salmon specialists, feeding on Chinook year-round, especially in the spring and summer when they occupy inland waters and it is their primary prey. During the fall and winter, when they are dispersed widely, they add other salmon species (coho in fall and chum in winter) and some demersal fishes to their diet (e.g., halibut and lingcod).
Southern Resident killer whales associate in stable social units called ‘pods.’ Most Southern Residents live their lives within their natal pod and interact with members of other pods several times a year. The three Southern Resident pods (J, K and L) differ in a number of characteristics, including pod size, dialect and home ranges. Within each pod there are several family units, each descended from a single female ancestor. These units, called matrilines, are each typically composed of an adult female, the “matriarch”, and her female and male offspring. In several cases, although the matriarch has died, the family unit has remained together. A few matrilines are functionally extinct as they are composed only of one or more males.
The Southern Resident killer whale population may have numbered more than 200 animals prior to the 20th century. However, with modern impacts on their prey base, opportunistic shooting prior to the 1960s, and the live capture or killing of nearly 70 Resident and Transient killer whales for marine parks and display from 1967 to 1971, the first complete count found just 71 whales in 1976. With the cessation of capture and shootings, the population slowly increased to a peak of 96-98 whales in the mid-1990s. However, in just five years from 1996 to 2001 the population rapidly declined by 20 percent to 78 whales. This population was listed as Endangered in Canada in 2001 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, and as Endangered in the United States in 2005 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Southern Resident killer whale numbers rebounded to 89 by 2006 and stabilized at 85-89 animals through 2011. However, after 2011 the population again entered a period of decline, and as of January 2020 stands at just 73 whales. The population was that small last in 1976.
From 1984 to 2011, there were two to six births in the population in most years (average=3.85 per year). However, from 2012 to 2014 there were just four births in total (average=1.33 per year). Somewhat encouragingly, in 2015 seven calves were documented, which was the second largest, single-year number of births. Unfortunately, no calves were born in 2017, and the one calf born in 2018, by late September, died shortly after its birth. Two calves were born in 2019 and are still alive as of January 2020. From 2012 to through 2019 there were 14 births (average=2.00 per year), seven of which have survived. Scientists are concerned that the ratio of male to female births has been skewed in recent years. In the last twenty years (1999-2018), there have been 32 known calves born that survived long enough for their gender to be determined. Only nine (28%) of those calves were females. Because a population’s reproductive output is dependent more on the number of females than males, this male-biased sex ratio among the juvenile whales limits the population’s reproductive potential and chance of recovery. Population viability analyses suggest that if reproductive rates remain low then the population is going to continue to decline.
Major concerns for the future of the population are it declining size, low number of births (zero to two) in six of the seven years from 2013 through 2019, strong male sex-ratio bias among juveniles, and small population size.
Individuals and Pods:
Among those lost in late 2016 was the whale known as ‘J2’, the matriarch and second known member of the ‘J’ pod. Estimated at over 80 years, she was the oldest known Southern Resident killer whale. As part of photogrammetric studies of Southern and Northern Resident killer whales, John Durban and Holly Fearnbach of the National Marine Fisheries Service reported that she looked thin in the early fall of 2016 just prior to the last time she was seen alive. The effect of the loss of a matriarch is not known, but research has suggested that post-menopausal, female killer whales make important contributions to their pods. They appear to lead the pod, presumably using their accumulated knowledge of the environment to find prey. They also appear to support individuals in other ways, as sons who lose their mothers are three times more likely to die.
In recent years, aerial images taken from micro-copters (small rotary-winged drones) have been used increasingly to assess the body condition and health of cetaceans, including the Southern Resident killer whales. Recently published research found declining body condition in 11 of 59 Southern Resident killer whales photographed in 2008 and 2013, two of whom died shortly after being found in poor condition. In 2018, a young female, J50, was found to be in very poor condition. NMFS and other organizations put together a plan to give her antibiotics and to try to supplement her diet. Antibiotics were administered and she was presented with live Chinook salmon, although it could not be ascertained whether she ate any of them. Unfortunately, her condition did not improve and she was last seen on September 7th. She is now presumed to be dead.
The sizes, trends in numbers, and demographic patterns have differed among the three pods. The dynamics of the largest pod, L Pod, have largely driven the population trends described above. The pod increased to a maximum of 56-59 whales in the mid-1990s, declined to 34 in 2014, and has been steady at 34-35 whales through 2019. In contrast, the next largest pod, J Pod, increased slowly in size from 16 whales in 1976 to 28 in 2010, fluctuated between 25 and 30 whales through 2016, but then suffered nine deaths through 2019; there are now just 22 whales in the pod. It is this pod that has been responsible for the recent decline in the total population size. The smallest pod, K Pod, has shown only a very slight numerical increase from 14-16 whales from the late 70s through the early 80s, to 18-21 whales through 2006, a growth rate of approximately two percent per year. However, the pod size has been steady at 18-19 whales since. No calves appeared in K Pod since 2011. A healthy population would grow substantially faster. For example, the Alaska Resident killer whale population has been increasing in recent years at a rate of 3.5 percent. While there have been 27 known births in J and L pods in the last 10 years, only one calf, born in 2010, has been seen in K Pod during that period.
In addition, the three pods have different distributions off the West Coast and show different movements during the year, typically tied to the movements of different runs of Chinook and other salmon. During the summer and fall, when all three pods have typically been present much of the time in Washington’s and British Columbia’s inland waters north and west of Puget Sound, K and L pods often travel to the outer coasts of Washington and Vancouver Island for a few days at a time. This pattern has been breaking down in recent years, with the whales spending significantly less time in inland waters in 2013, 2016, 2017 and 2018. In early fall, J pod regularly includes the waters of Puget Sound within their foraging range. From late fall through spring, all three pods apparently spend the bulk of their time on the outer coast, ranging from San Francisco to Southeast Alaska. J and K pods, but rarely L pod, make short excursions to inland waters during this period. Although relatively little is known about their distribution during this time, recent evidence suggest that they are spending time near the mouths of major rivers and estuaries, presumably to take advantage of salmon runs taking place in those seasons.
Scientists are uncertain about how many Southern Resident killer whales can currently be supported by the environment. Although the environment’s carrying capacity may have exceeded 200 whales before the 20th century, it may not be able to support that many Southern Resident killer whales now. Like the other fish-eating killer whale populations in the North Pacific, the Southern Residents are dietary specialists on fish, and particularly Chinook salmon. Recent scientific findings suggest that the reproductive and mortality rates of resident killer whales are related to the abundance of Chinook salmon, which has declined significantly from before the era of intense commercial fishing and widespread habitat destruction. Modeling studies suggest the modern carrying capacity is roughly 90 whales, which suggests that the decline since the mid-90s is not due primarily to prey-related, density-dependent factors.
What the Commission Is Doing
The Marine Mammal Commission has long been concerned about the fate of Southern Resident killer whales, hosting the first workshop focusing on killer whales in Seattle in April 1975. The Commission has consulted with and assessed each of the steps taken by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to promote the recovery of the population, and has provided recommendations to NMFS for improvements to their efforts. Some of the Commission’s recommendations have been to:
- Make monitoring of population status a high priority recovery action;
- Make monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of recovery actions a high priority;
- Recognize natural sound characteristics as an essential feature of the critical habitat of Southern resident killer whales;
- Implement a precautionary approach with regard to management of contaminants to prevent them from entering the Puget Sound environment;
- Conduct research into habitat use during the winter by Southern Resident killer whales;
- Develop regulatory provisions to establish vessel stand-by zones around Southern Resident killer whales beyond the 200-yard approach limit (e.g., beyond 400-600 yards) and limit the number of vessels that can be present between that boundary and the 200-yard approach limit at any one time;
- Adopt a regulatory speed limit of either seven knots or, at a minimum, a “slow safe speed” requirement within 400 yards of killer whales;
- Develop a monitoring plan to assess compliance with and effectiveness of vessel-approach regulations; and
- Include implementation of a “no-go” zone off the west coast of San Juan Island.
In May 2018, the Commission held its annual meeting in Seattle, and Southern Resident killer whales were a primary focus of the meeting. Issues such as the population’s current status and trends, the factors affecting its health and viability, research being conducted on it, and conservation/management efforts being taken on its behalf, were on the agenda.
Commission Reports and Publications
|Letter Date||Letter Description|
|December 31, 2019||
Letter to NMFS regarding the scoping of potential regulations to protect Southern Resident killer whales from the impacts of vessel disturbance and sound in the inland marine waters of Washington State
|December 18, 2019|
|October 29, 2018|
|October 5, 2018|
|August 30, 2018|
|March 31, 2017|
|August 13, 2013|
|February 4, 2013|
|January 15, 2010|
|March 2, 2007|
|August 14, 2006|
|March 22, 2005|
The lack of a sustained recovery and ongoing decline since 2001 may reflect a lower carrying capacity, but many researchers are concerned that human activities and impacts, in addition to those that may have contributed to a decline in carrying capacity, may have prevented the population from fully recovering and are causing the population decline seen in recent years. Since the 1990s, as the abundance of Chinook salmon has declined, the whales have been moving about more to find the hundreds of thousands of salmon they require each year. Declines in the abundance of many stocks of Chinook salmon, their preferred prey, could be limiting growth and reproduction. Greater numbers of deaths and fewer birth have been correlated with lower availability of Chinook salmon. Several whales who have died recently were observed be in poor body condition, perhaps related to poor nutritional status.
Southern Residents spend much of their lives in inland waters near numerous sources of pollutants that accumulate in the fish they consume. Some researchers have argued that calf and juvenile deaths, delayed breeding, and now a skewed sex-ratio in calves, may be related to the effects of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that have accumulated in the fatty tissues of the whales. Southern Resident killer whales have been shown to have high tissue levels of DDT, PCBs and flame retardants, all of which are associated with lowered disease resistance and/or decreased reproduction in marine mammals. Most POPs are retained and accumulate in their fatty tissues, increasingly affecting their health over time. More importantly, if a whale encounters a period of low prey abundance, it will mobilize energy in its fat reserves, thus releasing large amounts of these pollutants into its blood stream, which can seriously degrade the whale’s health, affect its reproductive potential and even lead to death. When killer whales give birth they offload a substantial proportion of the POPs they have accumulated to their calf. A female giving birth for the first time is likely to deliver a much larger load than females who have already given birth. A disproportionately high number of first calves die early in life. Recent research that looked at hormone levels in feces (yes, scientists collect whale poop to learn more about their health and diet) found that, between 2008 and 2014, over 2/3 of detectable Southern Resident killer whale pregnancies were unsuccessful, suggesting that the recent fecundity decline in the population is a much more serious problem that it had appeared to be from the decrease in the number of births detected each year. The authors of the study concluded that limited availability of Chinook salmon was the primary cause, while the release of POPs as the mother metabolizes her fat may have been a contributing factor. However, Transient killer whales have even higher levels of POPs in their tissues and are doing well, which suggests that reduced prey availability and other factors are likely more responsible, perhaps cumulatively, for the decline of Southern Residents.
The Salish Sea is busy with boat traffic traveling to and from Vancouver, Seattle and Tacoma, and many smaller ports. That traffic could increase substantially in the future with the construction of a new oil pipeline in British Columbia, which is predicted to result in a roughly seven-time increase in the number of oil tankers passing through key habitat in the San Juan Islands. In April 2017, two Northwest Indian tribes, the Tulalip and Suquamish, sued the U.S. Coast Guard, alleging that they failed to consult with NMFS regarding its traffic-separation scheme for the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and its potential impact on the Southern Resident killer whale population. From August to October 2017, the Port of Vancouver asked ships passing through Haro Strait to slow down. Haro Strait is part of, and adjacent to, critical foraging habitat for Southern Resident Killer Whales. Dozens of shipping and cruise companies complied with the request. Analyses showing the effect of the slowdown on noise levels in killer whale habitat will be published in 2018. Preliminary results showed the greatest noise reductions by the fastest and largest ships. However, it is not likely that large vessels represent the greatest vessel threat to Southern Resident killer whales. Vessels both large (such as bulk/general cargo ships, container ships, and ferries) and small (such as commercial whale watching boats, recreational fishing and other recreational/private vessels) may cause disturbance by their physical presence in proximity to the whales (even if emitting no sounds). Sounds emitted from certain vessels may exacerbate that disturbance, by possibly masking communications of the whales with each other. However, any effect of sound depends on whether the whales can hear the sounds (e.g. engines, propellers, thrusters, or echosounders), which is based on their hearing sensitivity AND the source level and frequencies of the sounds emitted and the vessel’s proximity to the whales. Larger vessels transiting Southern Resident killer whale habitat in the Salish sea emit sounds at frequencies below the hearing sensitivity of killer whales or at source levels lower than (or the distance is too great) generally affect them. These vessels may be using echosounders for navigation which the whales might be able to hear, but these higher frequency sounds do not propagate far and, therefore, to have an impact, the whales must be very close to the vessels. Smaller vessels, especially the commercial and private vessels engaged in whale watching, are more likely to be emitting sounds that the whales can hear (within their hearing sensitivity and at a source level or within a distance that would make them audible), and are more likely to be in closer proximity to the whales. However, the impacts of the sounds still depend on whether the whales do actually hear them (as well as the whales’ behavioral state) and cannot be separated from the impacts of disturbance via the physical presence of the vessels close to the whales.
Research has shown that Southern Resident killer whales have a variety of responses to the presence of vessels, including altering behavior (vessel avoidance and attraction, reduced surface-time / longer dives, increases in the proportion of time spent traveling, increased respiration rate and swimming speed, reduced foraging, disruption/interruption of foraging or traveling) and modulating their vocalizations (increased loudness). In addition, vessels may contribute to an increase in stress hormones when prey is limited. However, these studies have not been able to ascribe the responses specifically to the presence of the vessels or the sounds they generate.
Current Conservation Efforts
Recent modeling suggests that a robust population recovery will require an increase in the abundance and availability of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon, and a reduction in the amount of disturbance and noise from boats and ships. Consistent with these findings, NMFS is undertaking a suite of management and research activities designed to enhance the recovery of the population. Those activities include:
- Implementation of vessel regulations and guidelines
- Support of salmon restoration efforts
- Oil spill response preparation
- Studies to improve understanding of the impacts of anthropogenic sound
- Public outreach and education
- Studying year-round movements and diets
- Conducting stranding investigations and health assessments
- Monitoring the population trend
Following ESA-listing of the population, NMFS designated critical habitat in the inland waters of Washington in 2006. In response to a petition received in 2014 and a law suit in 2018, NMFS proposed a critical habitat designation for coastal waters from Washington to Central California used by Southern Resident killer whales, and important habitat features such as prey availability and water quality. As in 2006, NMFS did not include sound as an essential habitat feature. While the Commission supported the areas included in the proposed critical habitat, it disagreed with the exclusion of sound as an essential habitat feature, and recommended in its 19 December 2019 letter that NMFS better explain its rationale or include sound as an essential feature.
In 2015, NMFS identified eight marine species or populations most at risk of extinction, including the Southern Resident killer whale. NMFS announced that it would be focusing its resources on saving these “Species in the Spotlight” from extinction.
In December 2016, NMFS published a new five-year ESA review of Southern Resident killer whales. The review identified new research and conservation efforts that have been undertaken since the implementation of the 2008 Recovery Plan and a 2015 report on research activities, and how they contribute to improved understanding of the population and its recovery. The review concluded that “the overall status of the population is not consistent with a healthy, recovered population”, and that “Southern Resident killer whales remain in danger of extinction.”
In November 2016, three organizations petitioned NMFS to establish a protection zone for the southern resident killer whale population, intended to reduce disturbance of killer whales by vessel traffic and vessel noise. The proposed zone is along the southwest shore of San Juan Island, Washington, a key feeding area, especially for J pod. The petitioners requested that access to the proposed zone by certain vessels be prohibited during the months of April through September, when Southern Resident killer whales typically make use of the area for feeding. In January 2017, NMFS asked for information and comments on: (1) the need for a protection zone, (2) its geographic scope, (3) alternative management options to regulate vessel traffic, (4) effects of vessels on killer whales and their habitat, (5) potential economic impacts, and (6) any additional information that NMFS should consider. The Commission submitted its comments and recommendations regarding the proposed protective zone in March 2017. Its letter included the recommendations that NMFS (1) designate a time-limited Southern Resident killer whale protection zone (e.g. six years) with boundaries that encompass the largest size considered in the petition, (2) prohibit vessel access to the protection zone with certain exceptions, and (3) undertake monitoring studies focused on assessing a) the sources and levels of noise within the protection zone, b) changes in foraging activity and behavior of Southern Resident killer whales in response to protection zone measures, and c) the overall health, reproduction, and abundance of individuals in the Southern Resident killer whale population. As of January 2019 NMFS had not yet taken action on the proposed protective zone.
In 2018, Governor Jay Inslee issued an executive order that established the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force to assist the state in identifying, prioritizing and supporting the implementation of an action plan for the recovery of Southern Resident killer whales. Along with other government agencies and a wide range of public stakeholders, the Commission provided the Task Force with feedback on its draft report and recommendations. The Task Force released its final report with recommendations in mid-November, and those recommendations are reflected in the Governor’s budget and policy priorities. The Task Force made recommendations designed to increase the availability of Chinook salmon to Southern Resident killer whales, and decrease the risk to the whales from vessels, noise and contaminants. Particularly significant recommendations included:
- Significantly increase investment in restoration and acquisition of habitat in areas where Chinook stocks most benefit Southern Resident orcas;
- Significantly increase hatchery production and programs to benefit Southern Resident orcas … in concert with significantly increased habitat protection and restoration measures;
- Prepare an implementation strategy to reestablish salmon runs above existing dams, increasing prey availability for Southern Resident orcas;
- Establish a stakeholder process to discuss potential breaching or removal of the lower Snake River Dams for the benefit of Southern Resident orcas;
- Determine if pinniped (harbor seal and sea lion) predation is a limiting factor for Chinook in Puget Sound and along Washington’s outer coast and evaluate potential management actions, and … more effectively manage pinniped predation of salmon in the Columbia River;
- Establish a statewide “go-slow” bubble for small vessels and commercial whale watching vessels within half a nautical mile of Southern Resident orcas;
- Establish a limited-entry whale-watching permit system for commercial whale-watching vessels and commercial kayak groups in the inland waters of Washington state to increase acoustic and physical refuge opportunities for the orcas;
- Implement shipping noise-reduction initiatives and monitoring programs, coordinating with Canadian and U.S. authorities;
- Suspend viewing of Southern Resident orcas by any vessel for three to five years; and
- Prevent further use and release of toxics that could harm orcas and their prey.
In addition to Governor Inslee’s commitment to Southern Resident orca conservation in his budgets, Washington also enacted five orca recovery bills into state law. For more information on the task force visit Governor Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Whale Recovery webpage. In 2019, the Task Force issued a second report focused on the impacts of climate change and rapid population growth, in which it recommended:
- increasing funding for the implementation of salmon recovery plans;
- funding to investigate the role of pinniped predation of salmon the whale depend on;
- improving water quality for salmon in the Colombia and Snake rivers;
- increasing funding for the enforcement of vessel recommendations;
- providing funding for improve boater education;
- reducing noise and disturbance;
- updating water quality standards for pollutants most harmful to the whales;
- taking aggressive action to reduce human-caused greenhouse gas emissions;
- increasing ability to understand, reduce, remediate and adapt to consequences of ocean acidification, and to boost the resiliency of salmon populations to climate change.
Most recently, in late 2019, NMFS requested comments on priorities for addressing vessel impacts on Southern Resident killer whales. In its December 18 letter (see link above), the Commission recommended that NMFS:
- complete its NEPA process expeditiously, or better yet, institute additional conservation measures now, or as quickly as they are identified;
- expand the scope of its NEPA review to assess actions to increase the abundance and availability of the preferred salmon prey species and decreasing the whales’ exposure to contaminants; and
- consider and evaluate as part of the planned NEPA review the following actions to protect Southern Resident killer whales:
- Institute an indefinite suspension of ‘on-the-water’ watching of Southern Resident killer whales until a permit system is in place.
- Require commercial whale-watching vessels to be permitted, and also consider mechanisms for including private vessels in a permit system.
- Restrict the amount of time available for whale watching on a daily or week basis.
- Limit the number of vessels and the amount of time that each vessel can be within a specified distance of whales.
- Substantially increase federal and state surveillance and enforcement of vessel regulations, and investigate community surveillance systems and mechanisms to promote or reward good behavior.
- Require commercial whale-watching vessels to be equipped with AIS.
- Require vessels within a specified distance of the animals to turn off depth sounders, and to accelerate slowly when leaving the vicinity of killer whales.
- Consider further reductions in the current seven-knot, “go slow bubble” speed limit adopted by Washington for vessels in the proximity of killer whales.
- Designate key foraging areas as mandatory, “No Go” protection zones.
- Create an independent, fully funded, and robust education program targeting both the whale-watching industry and the public, capitalizing on the designs of programs such as “Be Whale Wise” and “Sound Watch”.
- Cooperate with all relevant jurisdictions, including with Canadian authorities, to monitor and reduce shipping noise in the vicinity of Southern Resident killer whales in the Salish Sea.
- Consider broad vessel speed restrictions in the proximity of killer whales to minimize the risk of vessel strikes.
- Assess additional actions that can be taken to increase the abundance and availability of preferred prey species.
Selected Peer-Reviewed Publications
Unprecedented biennial pattern of birth and mortality in an endangered apex predator, the southern resident killer whale, in the eastern North Pacific Ocean. Gregory T Ruggerone et al. 2019. Marine Ecology Progress Series 608:291-296
Population growth is limited by nutritional impacts on pregnancy success in endangered Southern Resident killer whales (Orcinus orca). Samuel K. Wasser et al. 2017. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0179824. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0179824
Quantifying the effects of prey abundance on killer whale reproduction. Erik J. Ward et al. 2009. Journal of Applied Ecology 46(3): 632-640
Review of Recent Research on Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) to Detect Evidence of Poor Body Condition in the Population. Matkin, CO, MJ Moore, and FMD Gulland. 2017. Independent Science Panel Report to the SeaDoc Society. 3 pp. +Appendices. DOI 10.1575/1912/8803