Making a difference for Southern Resident killer whales this Orca-tober
Give back this Orca Recovery Day, Oct. 15
Every fall, Washingtonians come together in an effort to help save the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population. This year is no different, with Orca Recovery Day coming up right around the corner, on Oct. 15!
Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, Southern Residents face three main threats: a lack of food, contaminants in their food, and vessel noise and disturbance as they forage and communicate using echolocation. Center for Whale Research’s July 2022 census recorded the Southern Resident population at just 73 individuals.
Orca Recovery Day is a day of action focused on bringing people together to restore habitat, reduce pollution, and raise awareness about how to make a difference for these iconic animals. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (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. Visit the Better Ground website to find a Orca Recovery Day volunteer event near you or more information about actions you can take to support orca recovery.
This Orca-tober, there’s perhaps no better time to consider the interconnectedness of salmon and orca recovery and the steps people can take to support both.
Here at WDFW, some of the ways we’re working to support both efforts include:
Investing in healthy habitats
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.
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.
Helping landowners to restore 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 fish 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.
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
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.
Visit this webmap, which is updated quarterly, to view the barriers as well as board-funded projects across the greater Puget Sound.
A regional approach
WDFW also helps to advance salmon, and in turn orca recovery, through the work of the Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group (RFEG) Program, which the Washington state Legislature created in 1990.
RFEGs involve local communities, volunteers, and private landowners in the state’s salmon recovery efforts. Through collaborative partnerships with local, state and federal agencies; tribes; local businesses; community members; and landowners, RFEGs help to lead their communities in successful restoration, education, and monitoring projects.
Over the last 30+ years, Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups in Washington state have completed nearly 1,000 projects to improve fish passage, opened up 1,378 miles of stream, restored 2019 miles of habitat, and completed nearly 4,500 salmon recovery projects. More information is available in our recent blog post.
Sustainable fisheries management
State and tribal fisheries co-managers are working hard to protect and recover Southern Resident orcas — that includes sustainable managing Chinook and other salmon to limit impacts on the fish available to Southern Residents. Fisheries managers do this by:
- Setting sustainable and supportive fishing seasons. Because fishing seasons are set to limit impacts on species of greatest conservation need, which has benefits to Southern Residents as well, Chinook salmon fishing tends to be particularly limited in the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and throughout Puget Sound.
- Targeting commercial fishing seasons. Commercial fishing seasons are planned to fall after primary foraging times in bays and rivers where the orcas aren’t present.
- Producing more fish. Across Washington state, we’re using hatchery programs to release more juvenile salmon to support the dietary needs of Southern Residents and our salmon recovery goals.
These are just some of the current efforts underway to support salmon and in turn orca recovery. Learn more on our website.
How you can help:
Be Whale Wise: Noise makes it harder for whales to hunt successfully. Stay out of the path of orcas by at least 400 yards in front of or behind them and 300 yards on either side. Learn more at bewhalewise.org.
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.
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.
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.
Consider a personalized license plate. For more than 40 years, the sale of personalized license plates has helped to support 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.
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.
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.
For more information about the Department’s work to support orca recovery, visit us online.