Research: Evaluating anthropogenic threats to endangered killer whales to inform effective recovery plans

New population viability analysis shows this critically endangered population can recover if measures are taken.

The endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SRKWs) that inhabit the Pacific Coast of Canada and the United States are balancing on a knife-edge. New research conducted by an international team of renowned scientists representing academic and conservation organizations, including Raincoast Conservation Foundation, in three countries have published their findings in Nature’s open access journal Scientific Reports. The study shows a 25% chance that these iconic whales could be gone within the next 100 years. However, with appropriate and resolute actions that increase salmon abundance and reduce noise, this risk of extinction could be significantly reduced.


Understanding cumulative effects of multiple threats is key to guiding effective management to conserve endangered species. The critically endangered, Southern Resident killer whale population of the northeastern Pacific Ocean provides a data-rich case to explore anthropogenic threats on population viability. Primary threats include: limitation of preferred prey, Chinook salmon; anthropogenic noise and disturbance, which reduce foraging efficiency; and high levels of stored contaminants, including PCBs. We constructed a population viability analysis to explore possible demographic trajectories and the relative importance of anthropogenic stressors. The population is fragile, with no growth projected under current conditions, and decline expected if new or increased threats are imposed. Improvements in fecundity and calf survival are needed to reach a conservation objective of 2.3% annual population growth. Prey limitation is the most important factor affecting population growth. However, to meet recovery targets through prey management alone, Chinook abundance would have to be sustained near the highest levels since the 1970s. The most optimistic mitigation of noise and contaminants would make the difference between a declining and increasing population, but would be insufficient to reach recovery targets. Reducing acoustic disturbance by 50% combined with increasing Chinook by 15% would allow the population to reach 2.3% growth.


Robert C. Lacy, Rob Williams, Erin Ashe, Kenneth C. Balcomb III, Lauren J. N. Brent, Christopher W. Clark, Darren P. Croft, Deborah A. Giles, Misty MacDuffee & Paul C. Paquet. 2017. Evaluating anthropogenic threats to endangered killer whales to inform effective recovery plans. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 14119 doi:10.1038/s41598-017-14471-0

Journal link:

Select figures

Figure 3

Figure 3 from the SKRW population viability analysis.
Mean projected SRKW population sizes for scenarios with (from top to bottom): no anthropogenic noise or contaminants; current Chinook abundance, noise, and PCBs; reduced Chinook, increased noise, and additional threats of oil spills and ship strikes as estimated for low level impacts of future industrial development; and these increased and additional threats with higher level impacts of development.

Figure 5

Figure 5 from the SKRW population viability analsyis.
Mean population growth for SRKW achieved by mitigation of anthropogenic threats. Threat reductions are scaled on the x-axis from no reduction to the maximum reductions tested: Chinook abundance increased up to 1.3x the long-term mean; noise disturbance during feeding was reduced from 85% to 0; and PCBs were reduced from accumulation rates of 2 ppm/y to 0. The top line shows growth rates under a combination of varying levels of improved Chinook abundance plus mitigation of noise to half the current level.


Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield, IL 60513, USA
Robert C. Lacy

Oceans Initiative, Seattle, WA 98102, USA
Rob Williams & Erin Ashe

Center for Whale Research, Friday Harbor, WA, 98250, USA
Kenneth C. Balcomb III & Deborah A. Giles

College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK
Lauren J. N. Brent & Darren P. Croft

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 14850, USA
Christopher W. Clark

Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sidney, BC V8L 3Y3, Canada
Misty MacDuffee & Paul C. Paquet

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