If Southern Resident killer whales are to persist in the Salish Sea decisive steps producing substantive reductions in threats must be taken

Photo taken from land
by Miles Ritter.

Save the whales: A decade of action for Southern Residents

For the last ten years, Raincoast has been using science, public education and the courts to protect Canada’s endangered population of salmon-eating killer whales. With their Chinook salmon stocks in serious decline and targeted by fisheries, and a noisy and polluted ocean, they face extinction under existing conditions. The good news is they can recover if these conditions are reversed.

Arguments for Action

2020 submissions to committees & hearings

2019 Submissions to committees & hearings

2019 Lawsuits and legal arguments

Hearings on Roberts Bank -Terminal 2  

Raincoast and its partners are represented by Ecojustice. Also, see Raincoast sufficiency and technical merit review (PDF) submitted to the RBT 2 hearing.

Leave to Appeal to Supreme Court of Canada on Trans Mountain Expansion

Federal Court of Appeal

The decision to dismiss CEAA and SARA arguments on Trans Mountain Expansion

 Leave to Court of Appeal Trans Mountain Expansion (Reconsideration)

A crisis for whales

In August of 2018 – after the death of another SRKW calf (to J35) and the death of young female (J50), Raincoast called for full closures of marine recreational and commercial Chinook fisheries and full closure of commercial and private whale watching on Southern Resident killer whales.  We took this step after months and years of input to the Canadian Federal government failed to result in necessary threat reductions and the declining health of the SRKW population.

Our August 2018 submission to the Washington State Task Force on SRKW (PDF) outlines the immediate steps that need to be taken to address this situation.

 Use Emergency Order provision of the Species at Risk Act

With our NGO partners and Ecojustice lawyers, Raincoast called for the use of an Emergency Order (PDF) under section 80 of the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA)

A crisis for Chinook salmon

Most populations of wild Chinook salmon in British Columbia are in crisis. This crisis is not just about numbers of Chinook relative to recent baselines, it extends to their size, their fecundity (how many eggs females carry), their run timing, their age structure, and in many places, their genetic diversity.  Despite this, only minor changes to Fisheries Mgmt Plans occurred in 2018.

For the past ten years Raincoast, with its partners in the salmon committee of the Marine Conservation Caucus, have submitted comments and critiques to Fisheries & Oceans Canada (DFO) on Chinook salmon management under the salmon Integrated Fisheries Management Plans (IFMPs).  Download our more recent critiques and comments on these fisheries below.

We also made specific submissions to DFO on the need to address Chinook harvest and implement threat reduction for Southern Resident killer whales

Ten years of legal action to establish and protect critical habitat

In the fall of 2008, Raincoast and several other conservation groups filed a lawsuit to protect Canada’s two populations of Resident killer whales. Represented by Ecojustice, the case was filed on the basis that Fisheries & Oceans Canada (DFO) is obligated to protect the critical habitat of threatened and endangered whales. A 16-year timeline detailing government failure and legal action by NGOs can be downloaded: SRKW recovery planning timeline (PDF).  The series of legal actions ended with a win (supreme court and the court of appeal) for critical habitat protection, at least on paper. The details of the critical habitat lawsuit (PDF) are here.

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In 2016, Raincoast, again led by Ecojustice, filed a lawsuit to stop TransMountain’s proposed seven-fold increase in oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea.  The case was heard before the Federal Court of Appeal in October 2017.  In a landmark decision for Southern Residents, we won this lawsuit in 2018. Read more about this critical court case.

More salmon and less noise, disturbance, and pollution needed in the Salish Sea

Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) need better living conditions if they are going to survive.  This starts with an adequate availability of Chinook salmon, their primary food source. In 2012, the US and Canadian governments (through NOAA and DFO) began a series of workshops examining the effect of salmon fisheries on southern resident killer whales.  Raincoast did not agree with some of the conclusions of their Science Panel Expert Report (PDF) and submitted our comments (PDF) to NOAA and DFO. We then conducted our own Population Viability Analysis (PDF) with leading scientists on this topic. One of the important findings from this analysis shows that more Chinook salmon and less disturbance from vessels can rebuild Southern Resident killer whale numbers.

Acoustic disturbance from vessel traffic

This expert testimony/report describes the importance of sound to killer whales and the concern for even more noise in their critical habitat. Southern resident killer whales produce and listen to sounds in order to establish and maintain critical life functions: to navigate, find and select mates, maintain their social network, and locate and capture prey (especially Chinook salmon). The existing level of noise has already degraded critical habitat and studies suggest it has reduced the feeding efficiency of these whales.

Download:  RCF – SRKW acoustics-NEB (PDF)

Population Viability Analysis

Since 2015, Raincoast has conducted two Population Viability Analyses (PVAs) on the SRKWs. A PVA can be a powerful analysis that evaluates and ranks threats to wildlife populations and assesses the likely effectiveness of recovery options. The first PVA (PDF) (2015) focused solely on the implications of Kinder Morgan’s proposed seven-fold increase in oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea, which has implications for noise and disturbance, potential oil spills and potential ship strikes. It was submitted as expert testimony in the National Energy Board’s hearing reviewing the TransMountain proposed pipeline and oil tanker project.  The second PVA was published in 2017 in one of Nature’s journal’s Scientific Reportsit addresses primary cumulative threats.  In 2018, we updated the population demographics component of the 2017 PVA and submitted this to the National Energy Board for their second review of Trans Mountain.

Both PVAs were conducted by an international team of renowned scientists representing academic and conservation organizations in three countries. The PVAs assessed the viability of Southern Residents in light of their cumulative disturbances and threats, including salmon abundance, increased ocean noise and disturbance from vessel traffic, climate change, contaminants and oil spills.

Download Raincoast PVA (Lacy et al. 2017)

The Southern Resident population has experienced almost no population growth over the past four decades and has declined in the last two decades. Our PVA shows that SRKW could be functionally extinct (less than 30 individuals) with a century existing under conditions.  A similar analysis by Fisheries and Oceans Canada came to the same conclusion. Conversely, reducing vessel traffic (small and large boat noise and disturbance) and increasing Chinook abundance increases their likelihood of long-term survival.

In 2019, Fisheries and Oceans Canada conducted their own Populaiton Viability Analysis (PVA, Clarke-Murray et al. 2019). It shows ongoing population decline with a 26% probability of quasi-extinction (one sex) within 75-97 years. DFO’s PVA can be downloaded here:

Download Full Report PVA Clarke-Murray et al. SRKW & NRKW 2019 (PDF)

Download Summary PVA SAR SRKW & NRKW 2019 (PDF)

Action Plan for recovery of SRKWs

In 2014, DFO released its first Draft Action Plan (2014 PDF) for Resident killer whales in British Columbia. Raincoast felt the document was weak and lacked action. With Ecojustice, Raincoast and a group of NGOs provided a critique of this Action Plan. Our primary criticisms are the lack of separate actions plans for endangered (Southern) versus threatened (Northern) killer whales, and the lack of threat reduction for food supply, physical and acoustic disturbance and pollutant exposure for endangered SRKW.

In 2016, DFO released a second Draft Action Plan (PDF), with little difference from the first. Again with Ecojustice, we critiqued this plan and submitted our comments (PDF) in August 2016. A final Resident Killer Whale Action Plan (PDF) was released in 2017.

Download: Comments on 2016 Draft Action Plan (PDF) for Resident killer whales.

Download: Comments on the 2014 Draft Action Plan (PDF) for Resident killer whales.

In February 2018, Raincoast and its partners submitted a recovery document (PDF) that outlines the measures that need to be taken for SRKW.

In August 2018, Raincoast and its U.S. partner, the Wild Fisher Conservancy, submitted an emergency measures (PDF) document to the Washington State Task Force on SRKWs.

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