Help protect Southern Resident killer whales this Orca Recovery Day, Oct. 16

The news of three pregnancies among the J-pod gives us glimmers of hope for the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population. It also further emphasizes the importance of doing all we can to give these iconic animals the best chance at survival.

WDFW is joining alongside Washington’s conservation districts and other partners this Orca Recovery Day to grow our progress together to save Southern Resident killer whales. Whether you join a socially distant Orca Recovery Day volunteer event near you or opt to incorporate small actions in your everyday life, we can all make a difference for Southern Residents.

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

Spreading awareness: Be Whale Wise regulations

Washington law requires boaters to stay at least 300 yards on either side and at least 400 yards in front of and behind Southern Resident killer whales. Boaters must also reduce their speed to seven knots within one-half nautical mile of Southern Residents.

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: Adopting rules for commercial whale watchers

Operators only view Southern Residents during certain viewing windows, and no more than three motorized commercial whale watching vessels may approach a group of Southern Residents within one-half nautical mile at one time. In instances when the Department designates individual Southern Resident killer whales as vulnerable, commercial whale watching operators work alongside WDFW to give these whales extra space, staying at least one-half nautical mile away. (Apart from Southern Residents, operators offer tours year-round with ample opportunities to view humpbacks, minke whales, gray whales, and the transient population of orcas.)

Licensed commercial whale watching operators also communicate with WDFW Enforcement and relevant authorities to convey concerns about whales and impacts from other boats. Commercial operators report Southern Resident killer whale sightings to the WhaleReport app, which the public can report sightings to as well.

Supporting a healthy Southern Resident diet

Visit the NOAA Fisheries website Learn more about how state, tribal and federal hatcheries are increasing production to benefit SRKW.

Setting supportive fishing seasons

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, fisheries managers often set seasons for when orcas have had a chance to feed and move into other areas.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations’ The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020 report, there is growing evidence that when fisheries are properly managed, stocks are consistently above target levels or rebuilding. Worldwide, biologically sustainable stocks account for 78.7 percent of all landings of marine fisheries — an increase since 1989 due in part to improved implementation of management measures, just like the ones we have here in Washington State.

Learn more about WDFW supports sustainable commercial fisheries management, and opportunities to find locally sourced seafood, at wdfw.wa.gov/LocalWASeafood. Hear from some of the commercial fishers helping to support fish for the future, in our video below.

Improving habitat: The best chance for long-term survival

Estuaries are bodies of water where the freshwater of rivers meets the saltwater of the ocean or Puget Sound, creating an environment that is a mixture of saltwater and freshwater. 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.

Take the Duckabush estuary, for example. WDFW, in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group (HCSEG), is leading a restoration project on the Duckabush River estuary in Jefferson County. With funding that the Department is requesting from the Legislature in the 2022, the project would reconnect the Duckabush River to neighboring floodplains and wetlands by modifying local roads and elevating Highway 101 onto a bridge spanning the area where freshwater from the Duckabush River meets saltwater of Hood Canal. It would open up habitat for a suite of fish and wildlife species, including Chinook salmon.

You can view the project preliminary design and learn more on our Duckabush Estuary Restoration Project web page.

A sample rendering of the completed Duckabush Estuary restoration project.

Helping landowners to restore 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 herring, sand lance, smelt, 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. The Department works with Washington Conservation Corps crews to monitor forage fish populations and is requesting funding from the Legislature in 2022 to continue this critical work.

Seahorse Siesta barge as seen from the beach.

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.

For more information about Shore Friendly, check out a recent segment of Washington Sea Grant’s Coastal Cafe: Restoring our Shorelines.

Improving access for migrating fish

An example of a Fish Barrier Removal Board grant-funded project to expand access for migrating fish.

Part of salmon recovery — and in turn orca recovery — includes helping to ensure fish have access to cool, clean water. Part of the way we do this is through grant programs, such as the Family Forest Fish Passage Program and Fish Barrier Removal Board, both of which help to support access and habitat for migrating fish.

The Fish Barrier Removal Board, for example, is not only helping to invest in expanded access for migrating fish it’s also leading an effort to identify and correct known barriers across Washington state. In 2020, a Fish Barrier Removal Board report found 1,931 barriers to Chinook salmon from priority prey stocks for Southern Residents. As of Sept. 2021, fish biologists have identified an additional 772 barriers to Chinook salmon from these stocks.

While a number of projects specifically targeting priority prey Chinook stocks are slated for completion in summer 2023, many projects that offer benefits for Chinook are already underway or wrapped up. One such project, the Nelson Dam project in Yakima, will replace the Nelson Dam, opening up 391 miles of habitat for salmon, including Chinook.

Visit this webmap, which is updated quarterly, to view the barriers as well as board-funded projects across the greater Puget Sound.

Monitoring whales’ health and safety

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 the impact of seals and sea lions of important fish stocks

WDFW, along with tribal biologists and other research partners, is conducting research that helps us better understand harbor seal and sea lion population sizes and trends in Washington’s marine waters and is collecting information on their diet, including how much of each fish and other species, such as squid and shrimp, that they consume. This work is focused on important rivers and estuaries like the Stillaguamish River and also at Puget Sound and statewide scales.

The research includes the use of bioenergetics models to understand the potential influence of seals and sea lions on various fish populations.

Understanding contaminants in the water

WDFW Research Scientist James West and WDFW Fish Biologist Andrea Carey sort through a catch of large zooplankton to select krill for contaminant analyses. Contaminants measured in krill and phytoplankton help us to determine where contaminants are entering Puget Sound.

Toxic chemical contaminants are a threat to the survival of Southern Resident orcas because they reduce both the quality and amount of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon.

SRKWs can be exposed to these toxics when they eat contaminated (low quality) adult Chinook salmon, which can result in contaminant levels in whales that are high enough to affect their reproduction and health. Adult Chinook salmon can acquire toxics while they feed and grow in saltwater, including the Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean.

Research by the Department has shown that Chinook salmon caught in Puget Sound have higher levels of human-made chemicals like PCBs and PBDEs, whereas those caught near California, have elevated levels of DDTs. With the help of partners, we’re also investigating how toxic human-made chemicals move up through the food web in the Salish Sea. Information from this study will characterize the linkage between the known PCB sources in Puget Sound to plankton and krill and the extent of PCB contamination and accumulation in the webs so that effective management actions can be designed to mitigate the PCB exposure of ESA-listed Chinook salmon and SRKWs.

Our research has also shown that toxic contaminant exposure can limit the survival of juvenile Chinook salmon, especially those rearing in developed rivers and estuaries, thus potentially reducing the amount of adult Chinook salmon available for food to whales. WDFW, in collaboration with tribal, state, and federal partners, is assessing which populations of young Chinook salmon in Puget Sound rivers and estuaries are most exposed to contaminants known to impair their health, as well as and the sources of these contaminants.

WDFW is also conducting a survey to assess to the extent to which newer, unregulated, potentially harmful, chemicals of emerging concern are present in Pacific herring, juvenile and adult Chinook salmon, and other key species in the food web. The Department is also assisting partners in modeling the potential harm of chemicals of emerging concerns to SRKWs, based on the levels we’ve measured in WDFW fish samples.

Seven 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 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.

7. Contribute to the WhaleReport app. If you see a whale from land or at sea, report your sighting to Whale Report. Reporting your sightings to Whale Report is the fastest and most reliable way to ensure that large vessel operators and WDFW Enforcement are aware of whales’ presence. The more that people use Whale Report, the better protected the whales will be. Download from the App Store or Google Play.

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