If Southern Resident killer whales are to persist in the Salish Sea decisive steps producing substantive reductions in threats must be taken.
Southern Resident killer whales are critically endangered. This declining population of 72 animals 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 birth of two calves in 2019 offers hope, but threats that impede their successful feeding and Chinook abundance must be addressed for 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 1. But there is a path to recovery. Help us compel government to act.
Our recommendations to the Canadian government
- Close marine commercial and recreational Chinook fisheries on Southern 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
- Address the cumulative impact of vessel traffic
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.
- Emergency Order – Summary (PDF)
- Emergency Order -Cover Letter (PDF)
- Emergency Order – Full document (PDF)
Our submissions to Washington State & US governments
- 2020 Submission to Washington State (WDFW) on whale watch licensing June 2020 (PDF)
- 2019 Submission to NOAA on Protective Regulations for SRKW (PDF)
- 2019 Submission to the WA State Task Force on SRKW (PDF)
- 2019 Submission to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council Working Group (PDF)
- 2018: Submission to Washington State Task Force on SRKW (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 submissions to DFO on the need to address Chinook harvest and implement threat reduction for Southern Residents.
- January 2018 input on Chinook and SRKW management (PDF)
- February 2018 comments on SRKW Discussion Paper (PDF).
Our 2018 recommendations follow on 10 years of effort by Raincoast and our partners in who have critiqued Chinook salmon management plans. Download our critiques and comments on these fisheries.
- 2020 Comments on Chinook management
- 2019 Comments on the proposed IFMP (Chinook only PDF)
- 2019 Letter on mgt actions to protect Fraser Chinook (PDF)
- 2018 Comments on proposed IFMP (PDF)
- 2017 Comments on proposed IFMP (PDF)
- 2016 Comment on proposed IFMP (PDF)
- 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 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 Reports; it addresses primary cumulative threats.
- RCF 2017 PVA This PVA evaluated the primary threats facing SRKWs (for Sci. Rep)
- RCF 2015 PVA focused on the increased threat posed by the TMX (for NEB Round I)
- RCF 2018 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)
Donate now and help us save killer whales
Increasing salmon hatcheries could do more harm than good for Chinook and Southern Resident killer whales
Misty MacDuffee on CFAX 1070 on fishery closures, Chinook salmon and Southern Resident killer whales
- Read more, “Southern Resident killer whales are on the precipice” ↩