Help Protect Southern Resident Killer Whales this Orca Recovery Day, Oct. 17

With the news of two new orca babies this fall, WDFW is joining alongside Washington’s conservation districts and other partners this Orca Recovery Day to celebrate our progress together to save Southern Resident killer whales. Whether it’s restoring habitat, helping boaters give killer whales extra space, or supporting more food for these iconic animals — the state is hard at work year-round to help support Southern Resident killer whale recovery.

“The news of these two new orca calves highlights just how important it is that we all continue to do our part to give them — and all our iconic Southern Resident killer whales — the best chance at survival,” said Kelly Susewind, WDFW Director. “No matter how you choose to get involved this Orca Recovery Day, it’s about taking the time to not only celebrate the achievements we’ve made together so far, but also narrow our focus on what we can do to benefit these orcas in the future.”

Read on for some of our progress so far and ways you can get involved!

Video courtesy of the Puget Sound Partnership

Spreading awareness: Be Whale Wise

The Department continues to spread awareness about the importance of going slow, staying alert, and giving whales extra space to support Southern Residents’ ability to feed, move about, and socialize. One of the ways we do this is through on-the-water patrols by WDFW Enforcement officers, which educate boaters about how they can recreate responsibly to keep orcas — and people — safe.

New killer whale viewing regulations that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law last year require vessels to stay at least 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales and at least 400 yards out of their path or behind the whales. Vessels must also reduce their speed to seven knots within a half-mile of a Southern Resident killer whale.

Learn more from WDFW Enforcement Captain Alan Myers in our video below.

Boaters are encouraged to watch for the Whale Warning Flag, an optional tool from the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, that lets others know that there might be whales nearby.

If you observe harassment or disturbance of marine mammals, please help by reporting it as soon as possible to NOAA Fisheries enforcement hotline at 1–800–853–1964 or the WDFW enforcement line at 877–933–9847 and/or or report online at bewhalewise.org.

Quieting the waters: Developing rules for commercial whale watchers

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WDFW is working on developing a commercial whale-watching licensing program and rules for how, when, and where commercial whale watching vessels view Southern Resident killer whales.

The new rules, expected to go into effect in 2021, are intended to reduce impacts of vessel noise and disturbance on Southern Resident killer whales so that they can effectively find food, rest, and socialize.

The draft rules will be out for public comment on Oct. 21. To learn more about our work thus far and find public engagement opportunities, please visit our commercial whale watching rule making web page.

Supporting a healthy Southern Resident diet

In connection with efforts to restore habitat, WDFW is also working hard to help support a healthy diet for Southern Resident killer whales, which rely on Chinook salmon for food. WDFW received $11 million to produce more food for orca. This equates to more than 26 million additional smolts — young salmon gearing up to head out to sea — annually.

Setting Supportive Fishing Seasons

WDFW also sets commercial and recreational salmon fishing seasons in a way that takes into account the needs of Southern Resident killer whales and minimizes how often fishing boats and Southern Resident orcas cross paths.

Fisheries management, including salmon management, is science-driven and highly monitored. Season setting considers ecosystem impacts, and the harvest quotas are centered around conservation and recovery objectives.

For runs that are priority runs for Southern Resident killer whales, we often set seasons for when orcas have had a chance to feed and move into other areas.

Improving Habitat

WDFW’s Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program (ESRP) is a grant program that provides funding and technical assistance to organizations working to restore shoreline and nearshore habitats that are important to salmon and other species in Puget Sound. By funding projects that help recover salmon and their habitat, this program is also helping to protect our Southern Resident killer whales. Thanks to funding from the Legislature, ESRP projects restore estuaries, remove shoreline armor, and more.

In October 2019, one of these ESRP-funded projects, Leque Island, was completed and returned 250 acres of diked land back into estuary.

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Removing the last bit of dike around Leque Island, October 14, 2019.

In the last year, Leque Island has seen considerable changes in vegetation, channel formation, and bird populations. Seeds from the surrounding marsh are settling on Leque Island and are already beginning to take root in the first growing season since DFW restored the tides. Native marsh species are important food sources for birds and support production of bugs that young salmon eat.

And birds have been responding! Before the project was completed, a fall bird survey detected about 50 birds total using the site. This fall, a similar survey effort recorded about 1,000 waterfowl and 900 shorebirds.

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Western Sandpipers in flight at Leque Island. Photo courtesy of Anthony Gliozzo.

Restoring shorelines

Another ESRP program is the Shore Friendly program, funding local efforts that provide stewardship incentives to shoreline landowners. With the goals of reducing shoreline armoring, such as bulkheads and seawalls, and restoring shoreline habitat, the program engages private landowners and communities to encourage changes in how they manage their shorelines.

Shoreline armoring reduces the sediment flow that creates our beaches in Puget Sound. Natural beaches with plenty of sand and cobble are spawning beds for forage fish, very small schooling fishes that provide a source of forage for many other marine species. Common forage fish are sardines, herring, and anchovies. Forage fish do not get their name from what they eat, but rather because so many species eat them. Forage fish are crucial to the marine food web of Puget Sound, and are an important link for recovering Puget Sound salmon and Southern Resident killer whales. Watch this video to learn more about how our beaches are formed.

Examples of creating healthier spawning beaches can be seen all along Puget Sound, including the Seahorse Siesta barge and bulkhead removal project on Whidbey Island. A large barge was built on the shoreline in the 1960s to create an elevated lawn for neighborhood residents. After six years of planning, construction began this month to begin removing the barge to make way for a natural shoreline.

Monitoring whales’ health and safety

WDFW has been a partner in the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network since its origin in the early 1980s. We serve as a response agency to over one-third of all of Washington State’s documented marine mammal stranding events in Washington State and often help with the response in southern British Columbia and northern Oregon waters.

Alongside our research partners, we determine causes of morbidity and mortality, track new and existing diseases, parasites, and monitor toxins and contaminants in marine mammals. As a partner in the West Coasts entanglement network, we assist with response for large whale (including Southern Resident killer whales) disentanglement efforts and are the primary wildlife responder for oil spill response, preparedness, and trainings.

We’re also involved in ongoing research activities like health screening and long-term contaminant monitoring of harbor seals throughout the Salish Sea. This work is part of a broader monitoring effort to understanding the health of Puget Sound, southern residents, and — in turn — humans.

Studying harbor seals

Recent research suggests that harbor seals might have an impact on salmon populations in the Salish Sea as they eat young fish leaving the freshwater rivers and streams and returning to the ocean.

WDFW, along with tribal governments and other research partners, is conducting research that helps us better understand harbor seal and sea lion population sizes and trends in Puget Sound. The research also informs our understanding on what seal and sea lions eat, including how much of each fish and other species, such as squid and shrimp, that they consume.

The research includes the use of bioenergetics models, which studies how energy flows and transforms within the ecosystem, to understand the potential influence of seals and sea lions on various fish populations.

Six ways to help:

1. Be Whale Wise: Noise makes it harder for whales to hunt successfully. Stay out of the path of orcas of at least 400 yards in front of or behind them and 300 yards on either side. Learn more at bewhalewise.org.

2. Plant a tree! Consider volunteering to restore salmon habitat. Contact your local regional fisheries enhancement group or conservation district to learn more about opportunities, such as tree plantings or work parties, to give back to streams and rivers in your community.

3. Support clean, healthy water. Whether it’s fixing a car leak, or planting a raingarden, there are a lot of small ways you can support clean, healthy water. Visit Puget Sound Starts Here to learn more. More information about the value of raingardens is available from Orcas Love Raingardens.

4. Opt for cleaner cleaning products. Consider products that are safer for the environment. Look for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice label to limit the use of chemicals that end up in our waterways.

5. Consider a personalized license plate. For more than 40 years, the sale of personalized license plates has been the primary source of funding for the management of endangered wildlife, including peregrine falcons, pygmy rabbits, and killer whales. You can buy personalized plates through the Washington Department of Licensing — initial fees and renewal fee varies by location and type of vehicle. A portion of sales — $2 from each plate purchased — supports the care and rehabilitation of sick, injured or orphaned wildlife.

6. Restore habitat. WDFW biologists and programs help private landowners pursue restoration projects along waterways and shorelines that provide important habitat for fish and healthy aquatic ecosystems. Visit our website for more information.

Written by

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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