Our Vision for Recovering Killer Whales: A Clean, Quiet Ocean Full of Salmon

August 22, 2018
Southern resident killer whales in Haro Strait. Photo by Toby Hall

Southern resident killer whales in Haro Strait. Photo by Toby Hall

Southern resident killer whales are in decline.  Our recent population viability analysis on southern resident killer whales predicted that, if threats remained constant, it should take several decades for the population to decline from 80 to 75 whales. In fact, that decline took only three years. We fear that the decline is accelerating, and we may be reaching a tipping point.

By studying killer whales from land, we can measure their responses to noise without adding the noise of a research boat to the equation. We use noninvasive techniques to measure swimming speeds, breathing rates, and other behavior. Our work on both northern and southern resident orca has shown us that the whales spend 18-25% less time feeding in the presence of boats than in their absence.

We recently joined an international, interdisciplinary study to understand the relative importance of the three main threats to recovery in the endangered killer whale population. The whales are facing a perfect storm of threats–not enough salmon, too much noise, and too many toxic chemicals in their bodies–but lack of prey is at the eye of the storm. This research shows it will take 30% more big, fatty, Chinook salmon than we’ve seen on average over the last 40 years for the population to reach our recovery goals. That will take time, but we have to start now. Meanwhile, reducing noise and disturbance can help make it a little bit easier for whales to find the salmon we have now. In the coming months, we will be revisiting our study on identifying critical foraging areas in the Salish Sea and strengthening their protection.

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