Basics
Thriving Species and Food Web
Orcas
Indicator
Number of Southern Resident killer whales
Vital Sign Indicator
Each Unit (number)
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By 2030, increase the Southern Resident killer whale population from 74 individual whales in 2021 to 86 individuals.

By 2050, increase the population to 110 individuals.

Target fact sheet

Memo to Science Panel with rationale

Lynne Barre
Contributing Partners
Last Updated
5/20/2022 9:26:17 AM
Map
Critical habitat for Southern Resident killer whale.
Description
Southern Resident killer whales are a unique population of orcas that ranges in the Salish Sea and along the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada. These whales eat fish and depend heavily on Chinook salmon for food. In the late-1990s, Southern Resident killer whales experienced a dramatic decline. The combination of a precarious food supply and threats from pollution, vessel traffic, and noise continues to jeopardize their survival. As a result, they are federally listed as endangered.
Vital Sign Indicator Chart
Number of Southern Resident killer whales
By: Pods
Population size of Southern Resident killer whales each year between 1973 and 2021, based on the annual July census, conducted by the Center for Whale Research. The Southern Resident Killer Whale population in Puget Sound is comprised of three pods: J, K, and L pods.

Killer whales, also called orcas, are among Puget Sound’s most distinctive and charismatic inhabitants. They occupy an important niche at the top of the food web. Orcas are very important culturally and economically for the region. 

Southern Resident killer whales are a unique population of orcas that ranges in the Salish Sea and along the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada. These whales eat fish and depend heavily on Chinook salmon for food. In the late-1990s, Southern Resident killer whales experienced a dramatic decline. The combination of a precarious food supply and threats from pollution, vessel traffic, and noise continues to jeopardize their survival. As a result, they are federally listed as endangered.

The Southern Resident Killer Whale population in Puget Sound is actually a large extended family, or clan, comprised of three pods: J, K, and L pods. Although they can be seen throughout the year in Puget Sound, they are most often seen during the summer, especially in Haro Strait west of San Juan Island, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and in the Strait of Georgia near the Fraser River and in the fall in Puget Sound.

Resident orcas were chosen as an indicator because they are top-level predators, spend a portion of the year in Puget Sound to feed and socialize, consume prey species that originate in Puget Sound, and are threatened by some of the pressures on the Sound, such as pollution, vessel traffic, and declining salmon and herring runs. Although a robust orca population is an important recovery goal both at the state and federal levels, there may be limits to how much the orca indicator can tell us about the overall health of Puget Sound. The Southern Resident Killer Whale population migrates in and out of the area, and thus is not entirely dependent on Puget Sound and its resources.

Other populations of whales, such as Transients (Bigg’s) killer whale and Northern Resident killer whales, also frequent the Salish Sea, but their numbers are not reported here because the indicator and target focus only on Southern Resident killer whales.

Key Vital Sign Indicator Results

The status of the Southern Resident killer whale population remains fragile. In 2010, the Partnership’s baseline reference, the census reported 86 individuals, and every year since then the population size has been smaller, except in 2011. Given recent population projections, this population will not meet the 2020 target.

  • The July 2021 census led by the Center for Whale Research reported 74 whales, up from 72 in 2020 and 73 in 2019, but down from 75 in 2018 and 77 whales in 2017. 
  • Between the 2020 census and the 2021 census one Southern Resident killer whale (L47) died and three calves were born (two in J pod and one in L pod). Unfortunately, one additional death occurred after the 2021 census.
  • The status of this endangered population continues to signal a struggle for survival. K pod, the smallest of the pods, has not had a calf born since 2011. A significant level of unsuccessful pregnancies (75% on average) point to lack of adequate food as a main stressor. Finally, nearly half of the calves do not survive to maturity.
  • Recovery of the population depends on increasing availability and access to its main prey—Chinook salmon populations in the Salish Sea and along the West Coast. Puget Sound Chinook salmon is a threatened population and the subject of many recovery actions. Contaminants in juvenile and adult Chinook salmon are other key indicators for Puget Sound as well as estuary and floodplain habitat restoration.
Methods
Monitoring Program

Center for Whale Research Orca Survey

Data Source

Annual Census as reported to National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by the Center for Whale Research

The census of the Southern Resident killer whale population, conducted annually by the Center for Whale Research, is an important method by which to assess the status and trends of this endangered population. The entire population is counted with a high degree of certainty using photo-identification techniques. Sighting networks throughout Puget Sound including Orca Network, the Whale Museum, and the Pacific Whale Watch Association, as well as the research community, report sightings and support the census.

Other populations of whales, such as Transients (Bigg's) killer whales and Northern Resident killer whales, also frequent the Salish Sea, but their numbers are not reported here because the indicator and target focus only on Southern Resident killer whales.

Critical Definitions
Interpretation of Results

The combination of a precarious food supply, exposure to pollution, and disturbance from noise and vessel traffic continues to jeopardize Southern Resident killer whale survival. As a result, they are federally listed as endangered. The health of individual whales is also an important factor which drives reproduction and survival and the small population size puts the Southern Residents at risk from genetic inbreeding.

On March 14, 2018, the governor signed Executive Order 18-02 designating state agencies to take several immediate actions to benefit Southern Residents, and establishing a task force to develop longer-term action recommendations for orca recovery and future sustainability. The governor invited members of the Legislature, the Government of Canada, representatives from tribal, federal, local and other state governments, the private sector and the non-profit sector to participate in the task force. The task force also includes designees from the lead state agencies, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound Partnership, and from multiple other state agencies.

From the Orca Task Force November 2018 report: "In addition to these three key threats, climate change and ocean acidification are overarching threats that will exacerbate current stresses on the Southern Residents, primarily through the food web as warmer stream and ocean temperatures, lower summer stream flows, heavier winter rainstorms and sea-level rise impact salmon, forage fish and the entire ecosystem that orcas rely upon."

2019 - final report and recommendations

On November 8, 2019, the task force released it's Year Two final comprehensive report and recommendations for recovering Southern Residents. The task force shared the details of their final recommendations at a press conference on November 8, 2019.

2018 - final report and recommendations

On November 16, 2018, the task force released its Year One final comprehensive report and recommendations for recovering Southern Residents. The report details potential options to address the major threats to Southern Residents, including prey availability, toxic contaminants and disturbance from noise and vessel traffic.

EXTERNAL LINKS

Southern Resident Task Force, Governor's Office

NOAA Fisheries Species in the Spotlight: Southern Resident Killer Whale

Center for Whale Research

Orca Network

Orca Behavior Institute

REFERENCES

Lacy, R.C., R. Williams, E. Ashe, K. Balcomb III, L.J.N. Brent, C.W. Clark, D.P. Croft, D.A. Giles, M. MacDuffee & Paul C.Paquet. 2017. Evaluating anthropogenic threats to endangered killer whales to inform effective recovery plans. Scientific Reports 7:14119.

NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2018. Southern Resident Killer Whale Priority Chinook Stocks Report.

Pacific Fishery Management Council. 2020. Pacific Fishery Management Council Salmon Fishery Management Plan Impacts to Southern Resident Killer Whales: Risk Assessment. Ad-Hoc Southern Resident Killer Whale Workgroup, May 2020. SRKW Workgroup Report 1.

Wasser, S. K., J.I. Lundin, K. Ayres, E. Seely, D. Giles, K. Balcomb, J. Hempelmann, K. Parsons, R. Booth. 2017. Population growth is limited by nutritional impacts on pregnancy success in endangered Southern Resident killer whales (Orcinus orca). PLoS One 12, e0179824 (2017).

Datasets

No datasets uploaded.

Reporting Guidance
Reporting Instructions
Subcategories
Name
Pods
K pod, J pod, L pod, All pods