Marine Mammal Commission

Southern Resident Killer Whale Conservation and Management

National Marine Fisheries Service Management

Determining Conservation Priorities

After a 2016 five-year ESA review of the Southern Resident killer whales, NMFS 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.” The review identified new research and conservation efforts to build upon past activities and NMFS has since focused resources on saving the Southern Residents through the “Species in the Spotlight” program.

Critical Habitat

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 recommended in a 19 December 2019 letter that NMFS should include sound as a separate essential feature of the critical habitat.

Limiting Disturbance from Vessels

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 in March 2017. That letter included 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 July 2020 NMFS had not yet taken action on the proposed protective zone.

Recently, in late 2019, NMFS requested comments on priorities for addressing vessel impacts on Southern Resident killer whales. In its December 18  2019 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 related to enforcement, permitting, and monitoring of vessels to protect Southern Resident killer whales.

Washington State Conservation Efforts

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 2018, and those recommendations were reflected in the Governor’s 2019 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 orca 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 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; and
  • increasing ability to understand, reduce, remediate and adapt to consequences of ocean acidification, and to boost the resiliency of salmon populations to climate change.