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.

Southern Resident killer whales are critically endangered. Their salmon food supply is in decline and their waters are noisy and polluted. This declining population of 74 animals (Jan 2021) has very low birth rates and premature deaths of adult whales. The birth of recent calves offers hope, but threats that impede their successful feeding and access to Chinook must be addressed for calves to survive and population recovery to occur.

A decade of action by Raincoast

Raincoast has been using science, the courts and public education to further recovery efforts for endangered Southern Resident killer whales.  Read more on our history of legal and scientific action over the last decade.

The crisis for whales

In 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.  Lack of prey is due to both the abundance of Chinook and boat noise and disturbance that interferes with their ability to successfully 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. However, proposed cure-alls like more hatchery salmon and killing seals have little scientific basis. Read more, “Southern Resident killer whales are on the precipice“. But there is a path to recovery. Help us compel government to act.

Our recommendations to the Canadian government

  • Close marine commercial and recreational interception Chinook fisheries on South migrating Chinook
  • Establish protected Southern Resident feeding refuges free from fishing and whale watching
  • End commercial and private whale watching on Southern Resident killer whales
  • Implement noise reduction targets from commercial vessels travelling in critical habitat
  • No Port of Vancouver shipping expansions,
  • Address the cumulative impacts of vessel traffic through the Salish Sea

in 2018, Raincoast and our partners (represented by Ecojustice), filed a lawsuit 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 submissions 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 an end to whale watching of Southern Residents.

Our submissions to Washington State & US governments

Our recommendations on Chinook and 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. For years, we have made submissions to DFO on the need to address Chinook harvest and implement threat reduction for Southern Residents.

The above recommendations follow on years of effort by Raincoast and our partners (in the Marine Conservation Caucus) who have critiqued Chinook salmon management and Integrated Fisheries Management Plans (IFMPs). Download our fisheries concerns (below).

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 the proposed Trans Mountain Expansion 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 Scientific Reportsit addresses primary cumulative threats.

  • RCF 2017 PVA (PDF)  This PVA evaluated the primary threats facing SRKWs (for Sci. Rep)
  • RCF 2015 PVA (PDF) focused on the increased threat posed by the TMX (for NEB Round I)
  • RCF 2018 PVA (PDF) 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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