2021 snapshot review of Southern Resident killer whale protection measures, what’s still needed, ongoing threats, population statistics

Federal enforcement and violator prosecution lacking, reducing effectiveness of protective measures.

1. Lack of enforcement 

  • Whale watching operators and recreational fishers still violate the 400-metre protection zone buffers around Southern Resident killer whales.
  • Some Canadian whale watching operators cross the border to pursue Southern Resident killer whales in U.S. waters, despite having agreed in 2019 to the Transport Canada Sustainable Whale Watch Agreement (SWWA) that prohibits them from pursuing or offering tours of these whales in Canada. Violations of this agreement by a few operators are actions that undermine the measures and spirit of the agreement for the industry.
  • Some recreational fishing vessels continued fishing within 400m and 200m of Southern Resident killer whales, refusing to lift their gear when asked to by Straitwatch. 
  • New regulations governing distance around Southern Resident killer whales came into effect in 2019. Since then, Canadian fisheries enforcement have been present in less than two percent of scans by Straitwatch. By comparison, U.S. federal and state authorities were observed monitoring vessel behaviour around Southern Resident killer whales roughly 20 percent of the time. 
  • Data compiled by Straitwatch shows some positive trends: from 2018 to 2020 – the period of increased regulations for vessels – there were significant declines in vessel numbers within 400 metres of Southern Resident killer whales: 71 percent for private vessels and 90 percent for commercial whale watching operators. The trend reflects the stronger federal regulations on distance and the Sustainable Whale Watch Agreement restricting commercial whale watching operators from pursuing Southern Resident killer whales.

2. Enhanced federal protection measures

Beginning in 2019, the federal government has mandated increasingly enhanced protection measures for Southern Resident killer whales, including:

  • Distance: All watercraft vessels must remain 400 metres from Southern Resident killer whales in B.C. coastal waters from Campbell River to Ucluelet.
  • Sanctuaries: No fishing or boating within Swiftsure Bank, Saturna Island and Pender Island interim sanctuary zones between June 1 and November 30.
  • Foraging area fisheries closures: A portion of key foraging habitat is closed to salmon fishing during the late spring and early summer fishing season as a means to limit interactions between whales and fishing vessels.
  • Chinook salmon: There are some restrictions in Chinook salmon fishing (both commercial and recreational) during the late spring period, although catch-and-release remains in place for recreational fisheries and targeted fishing of Chinook continues.

3. What more is required to protect Southern Resident killer whales? 

  • To apply more stringent enforcement of the minimum distance regulations for all vessels.
  • To suspend authorizations given to whale watching companies that continue to view Southern Resident killer whales in Canada and/or go into U.S. waters to view Southern Resident killer whales. 
  • To end targeted fishing of Chinook salmon in marine waters.
  • To close the full extent of key Chinook foraging areas to all salmon fishing from March 1 to December 1.
  • To create and implement a regional underwater noise management framework with noise reduction targets and timelines for implementation in annual steps to 2030.

4. Declines in Chinook salmon

The spring and early summer of 2021 was another year of critically low Fraser Chinook returns – the primary source of Chinook that bring Southern Residents to the Salish Sea. These periods of low abundance make it harder for Southern Residents to find the food they need to thrive. The average adult requires roughly 200-385 pounds a day to remain healthy.

5. Current Southern Resident killer whale population

As of October 2021, the 73 Southern Resident killer whales continue to struggle. Additionally, there have been fewer sightings of Southern Residents between May and September of this year – the months when members of J, K and L pods typically frequent the Canadian waters of the Salish Sea.

As of October 6, 2021, there are 73 Southern Resident killer whales in three matrilineal pods:

  • J-pod: 24 individuals
  • K-pod: 17 individuals
  • L-pod: 32 individuals

6. Recent deaths

This summer, 35-year-old K-21 (Cappuccino), the oldest male in the K-pod – the smallest of the three pods – was presumed dead. He was last spotted in late July, showing symptoms that were consistent with extreme starvation, also known as “peanut head,” and/or a chronic disease. The K-pod population is now smaller than when it was listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act in 2005. 

In September of this year, matriarch L-47 (Marina) was presumed dead, leaving behind her three offspring and two grand-offspring. She was 47 years old.

7. Pregnancies

In September, Washington State wildlife officials confirmed there are three expectant mothers in J-pod: J36 (Alki), J37 (Hy’Shqa), and J19 (Shachi). However, between 2008 and 2018, the rate of failed Southern Resident killer whale pregnancies was greater than 66 percent.

9. Ongoing threats to Southern Resident killer whales

Physical and acoustic disturbance: Southern Residents, like all killer whales, depend on sound to navigate; sense their environment; find food; communicate; and socialize. Noise and disturbance from marine vessels operating in Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat can interfere with these critical functions and, ultimately, lower successful hunting and feeding. During periods of low Chinook salmon abundance, noise and disturbance can further reduce successful foraging, contributing to nutritional stress.

Declined prey availability: Southern Resident killer whales are “salmon eaters,” depending on Chinook salmon as their primary food source. Many of the Chinook populations in southern B.C. are threatened or endangered, yet fisheries continue to target and kill these Chinook in large numbers – often exceeding 100,000 fish, even in recent years. Targeted marine fishing of migrating Chinook salmon must end (i.e., no marine Chinook fishing that intercepts fish destined for Southern Resident killer whale feeding grounds).

Contaminants: Southern Resident killer whales are one of the most contaminated marine mammals on the planet. Contaminants from human activities that end up in the marine environment have significant impacts on these whales and can also affect their main prey, Chinook salmon. One important source of these marine pollutants is located in Metro Vancouver: the Iona Wastewater Treatment plant. This facility only treats water to a primary level, removing about 50 percent of known contaminants. Once treated, this (undertreated) discharge is dumped directly into the Fraser River estuary, which is essential rearing habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon. Advanced tertiary wastewater treatment is required to stop these contaminants from reaching Southern Resident killer whale habitat. Metro Vancouver’s current plan is to upgrade the plant to tertiary treatment by 2034. This is four years after the regulatory deadline of 2030 for secondary treatment, and it is unclear if they have gotten federal approval for this delay.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.