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 73 animals (July 2022) 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.

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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.

A crisis for killer whales: the 2018 Emergency Order

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% 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 20% or greater risk of functional extinction in the next 100 years if their threats aren’t reduced.

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 the Emergency Order failed and three more whales died, we modified our request above to include full closures on marine Chinook fisheries and an end to whale watching of Southern Residents.

Whales can recover if we act

The good news is, Southern Residents 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.

Our recommendations to the Canadian government

  • Close marine commercial & recreational interception Chinook fisheries on South migrating Chinook
  • Establish protected Southern Resident feeding refuges free from fishing and whale watching
  • End commercial & 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

Our recommendations to US & Washington State governments

Raincoast works with partners in the United States on submissions to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS/NOAA), the Washington State government, and Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC).

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).

Can Southern Resident killer whales recover?

Population Viability Analysis

Raincoast has conducted two+ Population Viability Analyses (PVAs) on the SRKWs. A PVA can evaluate and rank threats to wildlife and assesses the effectiveness of recovery options. The first PVA (PDF) (2015) focused on the implications of the Trans Mountain Expansion’s seven-fold increase in oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea and its consequences 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 including prey (chinook salmon), underwater noise (from vessels), and contaminants (PCBs).

  • 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 given implications from the increases in shipping traffic planned for their critical habitat and further declines in salmon abundance. A separate population viability analysis undertaken by Fisheries and Oceans Canada came to a similar conclusion about extinction risk. 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.

Importantly, however, the risk of extinction in 100 years can be almost eliminated if Chinook abundance increases and noise decreses.

Acoustic disturbance from vessel traffic

This expert testimony/report led by Dr. Chris Clark and 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)