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 or 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 celebrate 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

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, we 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. 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 seafood locally, 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

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

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.

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

Restoring 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.

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.

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 harbor seals

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.

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 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.

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.