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J50 and her family. Photo by NOAA/CORI

Southern Resident killer whales need your voice

Southern Resident killer whales are critically endangered. This population of 73 animals has seen a drop in numbers over the last decade, has very low birth rates and premature deaths of adult whales. Their salmon food supply is in decline, their waters are noisy and polluted, and measures to reduce these threats have been inadequate.  The recent birth of a calf in L-pod (January 2019) and the pregnancy of two more whales are signs of hope, but threats that impede their successful feeding and Chinook abundance must be addressed for recovery to occur.

After 10 years of legal, scientific, and public outreach efforts to implement recovery measures for these whales, Raincoast and its partners filed a lawsuit in 2018 to compel the government to act.  If Southern Resident killer whales are to live on in the Salish Sea, decisive steps producing substantive reductions in known threats need to be taken now. Proposed cure-alls like more hatchery salmon and killing seals have little scientific basis, even though some might see these as solutions.1  but there is a path to recovery. Help us compel government to act.

The crisis for whales

By September 2018, a population of 74 Southern Resident killer whales had seen no successful calves since 2015. A 2017 study on their birth rates found nearly 70 per cent of detected pregnancies failed due to nutritional stress associated with lack of prey.  By August 2018 another adult whale had died (L92), a new calf had died, and a young female whale (J50) was the recipient of unprecedented emergency measures prior to her death.

Lack of prey is due to both the abundance of Chinook and boat noise and disturbance that interferes with their ability to catch them. Raincoast’s population viability assessment and those conducted by government scientists indicate SRKWs face a 25% to 49% risk of extinction (respectively) in the next 100 years if their threats aren’t reduced.

The good news is they can recover if we reduce vessel disturbance and increase the abundance of Chinook salmon.

Our recommendations to the Canadian government

  •  Establish protected Southern Resident feeding refuges free from fishing and whale watching
  •  Close marine commercial and recreational Chinook fisheries
  •  End commercial and private whale watching on Southern Resident killer whales
  •  Implement noise reduction targets from commercial vessels travelling in critical habitat
  • Address the cumulative impact of vessel traffic

Our recommendations to the Washington State Task Force

Download: Submission to Washington State Task Force on SRKW (PDF)

Our 2018 legal efforts to achieve an emergency order

After requesting the order in accordance with the Species at Risk Act in January 2018 and getting no response, Ecojustice, representing Raincoast and our partners, filed a lawsuit in September 2018 asking the Federal Court to review the ministers’ failure to recommend an emergency order. In December 2018, the ministers responsible for killer whales (DFO & ECCC) recommended an Emergency Order. Cabinet declined this request.

Below are the original letters outlining the emergency steps we identified in early 2018.  After these efforts failed and three more whales died, we modified our request to include full closures on marine Chinook fisheries and full closure on whale watching of Southern Residents.

Download: Emergency Order – Summary (PDF)

Download: Emergency Order -Cover Letter (PDF)

Download: Emergency Order – Full document (PDF)

Our recommendations on Chinook abundance and sustainable fisheries

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.

In 2018 we made specific submissions to DFO on the need to address Chinook harvest and implement threat reduction for Southern Residents.

Download January 2018 input on Chinook and SRKW management (PDF)

Download 2018 comments on SRKW Discussion Paper (PDF).

Our 2018 recommendations follow on 10 years of effort by Raincoast and its partners in the Marine Conservation Caucus who have critiqued federal Chinook salmon management. Download our critiques and comments on these fisheries.

Download: 2018 comments on proposed IFMP (PDF)

Download: 2017 Comments on proposed IFMP (PDF)

Download: 2016 Comment on proposed IFMP (PDF)

Download: 2015 comments on proposed IFMP (PDF)

Our assessment of critical habitat and Population Viability

Population Viability Analysis

Raincoast has conducted two Population Viability Analyses (PVAs) on the SRKWs. A PVA can evaluate and rank threats to wildlife populations and assesses the effectiveness of recovery options. The first PVA (PDF) (2015) focused on the implications of Kinder Morgan’s proposed seven-fold increase in oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea and its implications for noise and disturbance, potential oil spills and potential ship strikes. The second PVA was published in 2017 in one of Nature’s journal’s Scientific Reportsit addresses primary cumulative threats.

Download: 2017 PVA  This PVA evaluated the primary threats facing SRKWs  (for Sci. Rep)

Download: 2015 PVA This PVA focused on the increased threat posed by the Trans Mountain Expansion (for NEB Round I)

       Download the 2018 PVA. This PVA updated population demographics given recent deaths (for NEB Round II)

The Southern Resident population has experienced very low population growth over the past four decades and has declined in the last two decades. Our PVA shows that SRKWs could be functionally extinct (less than 30 individuals) within a century existing under conditions. A similar analysis by Fisheries and Oceans Canada came to a similar conclusion. Conversely, reducing vessel traffic (small and large boat noise and disturbance) and increasing Chinook abundance increases their likelihood of long-term survival. Both PVAs were conducted by an international team of renowned conservation scientists.

Acoustic disturbance from vessel traffic

This expert testimony/report submitted by Raincoast to the National Energy Board in 2015 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)

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