Killer Whale Northeast Pacific southern resident population
Scientific Name: Orcinus orca
Other/Previous Names: Killer Whale (Northeast Pacific southern resident population),Killer Whale (Southern Resident population)
Taxonomy Group: Mammals
COSEWIC Range: Pacific Ocean
COSEWIC Assessment Date and Status Change: November 2008
COSEWIC Status: Endangered
COSEWIC Status Criteria: C2a(i,ii); D1
COSEWIC Reason for Designation: The population is small and declining, and the decline is expected to continue. Southern residents are limited by the availability of their principal prey, Chinook Salmon. There are forecasts of continued low abundance of Chinook Salmon. Southern residents are also threatened by increasing physical and acoustical disturbance, oil spills and contaminants.
COSEWIC History of Status Designation: The “North Pacific resident populations” were given a single designation of Threatened in April 1999. Split into three populations in November 2001. The Northeast Pacific southern resident population was designated Endangered in November 2001. Status re-examined and confirmed in November 2008.
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Endangered
Date of Listing (yyyy-mm-dd): 2003-06-05
Please note that this information is provided for general information purposes only. For the most up to date and accurate list of species listed under the Species at Risk Act, please see the Justice Laws Website.
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Image of Killer Whale
The Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) is the largest member of the dolphin family. Its size, distinctive black and white markings, and tall dorsal fin characterize the species. Adult males may reach overall lengths of eight to nine metres, and weigh up to five tonnes; females are smaller, measuring at maximum about seven metres and four tonnes. The first sight of a Killer Whale is usually the iconic triangular dorsal fin, up to 1.8 metres in height for males, and less than one metre for females and juveniles.
Three distinct groups, or ecotypes, of Killer Whale inhabit Canadian Pacific waters, each exhibiting different prey preferences, dialects and social organization. These ecotypes –Bigg’s (Transient), Offshore, and Resident – are believed to be socially and genetically isolated, despite sharing the same waters. Resident Killer Whales feed exclusively on fish (primarily Chinook and Chum Salmon) and cephalopods, while Bigg’s Killer Whales feed primarily on marine mammals. Offshore Killer Whales are the least understood of the three ecotypes, but are believed to primarily consume fish, with shark species comprising a significant part of their diet.
Distribution and Population
The Resident Killer Whale ecotype is comprised of two distinct populations: the Northern Residents and the Southern Residents. Although members of these two populations may overlap in range, they have not been observed to interact and genetic studies suggest that the two populations rarely-if ever-interbreed.
The known range of the Southern Resident Killer Whale extends from northern British Columbia to central California; however, during the summer months they concentrate off the southern end of Vancouver Island and are most frequently sighted in Haro Strait, Georgia Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. More recently, the population has exhibited a general downward trajectory and in 2014, consisted of 78 individuals.
Killer whales have been observed in all oceans of the world, but they generally concentrate in colder regions and in areas of high productivity. They are found in all three of Canada's oceans, but appear to be less common in the Atlantic and Arctic. In the Canadian Pacific, they have been observed throughout almost all marine waters, including many long inlets, narrow channels and deep embayments, as well as occasionally up brackish river channels.
Perhaps the most important aspect of habitat for the Southern Resident Killer Whale is the availability of prey. Southern Resident Killer Whales are dietary specialists, feeding primarily on fish. Chinook Salmon (Onchorhynchus tshawytscha) is the predominant prey species taken by resident populations during May to August, but Chum Salmon (O. keta) is more prevalent in their diet from September to October.
The acoustic environment is also an important element of their habitat; an ocean quiet enough for the transmission and reception of their echolocation clicks and vocalizations is essential for navigation, foraging, cultural and social purposes.
Critical habitat is described in the Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada (http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/document/default_e.cfm-documentID=1341).
Killer Whales are delineated into ecotypes, between which distinct prey preferences and unique vocal dialects have led to reproductive isolation and genetically distinct lineages. This cultural and reproductive isolation may also occur within an ecotype, where lineages may share similar prey preferences and habitat but exhibit different vocal dialects, as seen in the Northern and Southern Resident lineages.
As a result of over 40 years of study, the life history characteristics of Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales are well known compared to all other ecotypes. Both males and females reach sexual maturity at 15 years of age on average. The gestation period of Killer Whales is typically 16 to 17 months, and the interval between calving is usually about 5 years (ranging from 2 to 12 years). Length of calves at birth ranges from 2.2 to 2.6 metres. Calving occurs year round, but appears to peak between fall and spring. Mortality rates vary with age; mortality from birth to six months of age has been estimated as being as high as 50%. The average life expectancy is about 50 years for females and 29 years for males.
The greatest threats to Southern Resident Killer Whales include a reduction in prey availability; exposure to contaminants from prey; toxic spills; acute acoustic disturbance (e.g. mid-frequency active sonar, seismic surveying, marine construction); and masking of vocalization and echolocation required for navigation, foraging, cultural and social purposes. Chronic acoustic disturbance, physical disturbance, interactions with commercial fisheries and aquaculture, direct killing and climate change are other human-related threats that have potential to jeopardize the Southern Resident Killer Whale population.
Natural factors may also impact the survival of Southern Resident Killer Whales: diseases, fixed dietary preferences and corresponding decreases in prey supply, inbreeding depression (i.e. the genetic deterioration of the population due to breeding of related individuals), and mass stranding or natural entrapment.
How current threats may act synergistically to impact Killer Whales is unknown, but in other species, multiple stressors have been shown to have strong negative and often lethal effects, particularly when animals carry elevated levels of environmental contaminants.
The Killer Whale, Northeast Pacific southern resident population, is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).
More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.
Provincial and Territorial Protection
To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.
Status of Recovery Planning
Recovery Strategies :
Name Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada (Final)
Status Final posting on SAR registry
Pacific Region Species at Risk Program
DFO Pacific Region - MPO région du Pacifique - Chair/Contact - Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Recovery Progress and Activities
Summary of Progress to Date
A comprehensive Recovery Strategy has been drafted that includes recommendations on measures to recovery these populations and necessary research activities. Action Plan development, which will provide advice on specific activities needed to recover these populations, will commence in the fall of 2006.
Summary of Research/Monitoring Activities
The focus of research to date has been on improving our understanding of prey preferences and feeding behaviour. New insights into the dependence on chinook salmon and prey sharing behaviour are assisting understanding the recovery needs of these populations.
In addition, surveys and acoustic monitoring have been deployed to gain an understanding of winter distributions. This has been identified as a critical research gap to address. The annual population census, which is critical to monitor the population status and understand factors affecting their recovery potential, has been maintained. Studies on contaminants, including the emerging concern for the new identified PTBE’s (fire retardants) have continued.
Summary of Recovery Activities
Disturbance (harassment) of marine mammals, including the killer whale, by the public is prohibited by both Canadian and US federal legislation. The “Be Whale Wise: Marine Wildlife Guidelines for Boaters, Paddlers and Viewers” have been widely distributed though many government and non-governmental organizations to support reducing vessel disturbance. Training of Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Conservation and Protection Officers has led the way to a directed enforcement program for killer whale viewing. Projects such as the Marine Mammal Monitoring Project (M3) in Victoria, BC, and Straitwatch in Johnstone Strait have been developed to educate the boating public, both on and off the water, about appropriate conduct in the vicinity of marine mammals and monitor vessel activity and compliance with the Be Whale Wise Guidelines. The Soundwatch Boater Education Program, in the American San Juan Islands, coordinates its activities with the M3 Program to provide coverage throughout the southern resident killer whale proposed critical habitat in Canada and the US.
Non-government education and stewardship programs, such as the Green Boater Program and Toxic Smart, encourage Canadians to take action at an individual level to protect proposed critical habitat. These programs complement government programs, such as the Georgia Strait Action Plan, to reduce the impacts of contamination that affect killer whales.
Straitwatch: http://www.straitwatch.orgMarine Mammal Monitoring Program (M3): http://www.salishsea.ca/m3/
Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada: http://www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/species/marinemammals/default_e.htm
PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.
87 record(s) found.
Reports on the Progress of Recovery Document Implementation
Two distinct populations of Killer Whales (Orcinus orca), known as the Northern and Southern Residents, occupy Canadian Pacific waters. In 2001, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) designated Southern Resident Killer Whales as Endangered, and Northern Resident Killer Whales as Threatened. Both populations are listed in Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The “Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada” was finalized and published on the Species at Risk Public Registry in 2008, then amended in 2011.
The goal of this agreement is to reduce the acoustic and physical disturbance to SRKW by large commercial vessels in Pacific Canadian waters, in particular those vessels that call at the Port of Vancouver, or otherwise operate in SRKW critical habitat, through the continuation of existing voluntary efforts and the commitment to develop and implement new voluntary threat reduction measures to support the recovery of the SRKW.
COSEWIC Status Reports
Killer Whales, or Orcas Orcinus orca, are easily identified by their tall, triangular dorsal fin and their distinctive black and white colouration. Only one species is recognized, but the taxonomy of Orcinus is a subject of ongoing debate.
The population is small and declining, and the decline is expected to continue. Southern residents are limited by the availability of their principal prey, Chinook Salmon. There are forecasts of continued low abundance of Chinook Salmon. Southern residents are also threatened by increasing physical and acoustical disturbance, oil spills and contaminants.
Two distinct populations of Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca), known as the Northern and Southern Residents, occupy the waters off the west coast of Canada. In 2001, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) designated Southern Resident Killer Whales as Endangered and Northern Resident Killer Whales as Threatened. Both populations are listed in Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). These two populations are acoustically, genetically, and culturally distinct.
The “Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada” was finalized and published on the Species at Risk Public Registry in 2008. Minor amendments to the Recovery Strategy were made in 2011 to provide additional clarification regarding critical habitat for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales. The Recovery Strategy was amended again in 2018 to include identification of additional critical habitat for these populations, to provide clarification of the features, functions, and attributes for all Resident Killer Whale critical habitat, and to provide minor updates to background and species information.
The Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) were listed as Threatened and Endangered, respectively, under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2003. This Action Plan is considered one in a series of documents that are linked and should be taken into consideration together, including the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) status report, a recovery potential assessment, and the Recovery Strategy.
The Multi-species Action Plan for Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada applies to lands and waters occurring within the boundaries of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (GINPR). The plan meets the requirements for action plans set out in the Species at Risk Act (SARA (s.47)) for species requiring an action plan that regularly occur at this site. Measures described in this plan will also provide benefits to other species of conservation concern that regularly occur at GINPR.
Backed by the Insular Mountain Range of Vancouver Island and facing the open Pacific Ocean, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada (Pacific Rim NPR) protects and presents the rich natural and cultural heritage of Canada's west coast. Pacific Rim NPR consists of three distinct units, the Long Beach Unit, Broken Group Islands Unit, and West Coast Trail Unit, each offering a range of unique visitor experiences. With significant areas (51,216 ha in total) of old growth, temperate rainforest, coastal dune systems, wetlands and foreshore, and marine habitats, the park demonstrates the interconnectedness between land, sea, and people. These natural wonders are interwoven with the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations culture (past and present), and that of European explorers and settlers.
Critical Habitat Statements
This is a statement of how the critical habitat of Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) is legally protected. This statement is pursuant to, and in compliance with, Section 58 (5) of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), S. C. 2002, c. 29.
This Order confirms the Governor in Council’s decision declining to make an Emergency Order under section 80 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) for the protection of the Killer Whale Northeast Pacific southern resident population (SRKW).
COSEWIC Annual Reports
2009 Annual Report to the The Minister of the Environment and the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council (CESCC) from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
Permits and Related Agreements
A comparison of the relative impacts of nutrition and toxicant exposure on reproduction of Southern Resident killer whales using non-invasive measures of analyzing hormone metabolites and toxicants from fecal sample collection.
The objective of this research is to estimate the abundance of the travel patterns, forage species and habitat use by cetaceans in and around Caamano Sound to Douglas Channel. Additionally, abundance data can support the possible identification of habitat that is critical to survival and recovery of the species. A previously established hydrophone network will be used to record whale calls and evaluate presence and activity. This work will also contribute to public education and awareness of the whales that inhabit the territory.
This study will use photo, video and acoustic identification of individuals, wounds, incidents and behaviour to document seasonal prey preference, feeding techniques, abundance and distribution, and rates and responses to anthropogenic threats. Prey and fecal samples will be collected for health and diet assessment, and mobile and fixed hydrophones will collect acoustic samples.
Authorized representatives from DFO, the Animal Health Center and the Vancouver Aquarium are licensed to collect for diagnostic purposes: all tissues, organ fluids and/or blood of dead salvaged parts or surplus material collected from dead marine mammals and turtles.
Authorization to study behavioural responses of Chinook Salmon to shipping noise and Killer Whale vocalizations. The behavioural responses of Chinook salmon shall be captured using shipping noise and Killer Whale vocalizations to compare past behaviour, during and after playback, as well as general path taken, swimming speed and depth. The research requires recording behaviour in a natural habitat setting.
1. Focus on Chinook behaviour only
2. Frequent binocular scan of the research area for cetaceans. If cetaceans are present, sound broadcasts to be ceased
3. Audio files permitted for use include southern resident killer whale call, ship noise, silent audio file.
Investigate the impacts of anthropogenic activities on Killer Whales. Improved understanding of foraging behaviour and its vulnerability to impacts from human activities (e.g. interference from underwater noise) is beneficial to the conservation of this endangered species. Physiological impacts from nutritional stress and disturbance shall be investigated through biochemical analysis of Killer Whale tissue and fecal samples. Data obtained shall be used to increase the understanding of factors related to the behaviour, nutritional status and acoustic sensitivity of individuals in the Southern Resident Killer Whale population and provide valuable insight into how these individuals respond physiologically to changes in the acoustic environment and nutritional stress.
The activities permitted under this license include the following:
1. Suction cup tag a maximum of 20 Northern Resident Killer Whales and 5 Southern Resident Killer Whales from an approach distance of no closer than 5 metres.
2. DFO Animal Care Committee's guidelines and approved Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for Killer Whale suction cup tagging and close vessel approaches (Mar 2019) are to be followed at all times.
3. Engagement time within 100 metres is to be limited to 60 minutes per day per whale.
4. Robust and healthy appearing adults should be the priority for tagging. Animals under 3 years of age are not permitted to be tagged. Tagging efforts should be spread across matrilines to avoid disturbance of the same matrilines.
5. Where approach distance is within 100 metres, following or preceding a focal whale, monitor and record changes in behaviour and heading. If animal behaviour threshold criteria are met as per the SOP, tagging attempts for that animal must cease.
6. Remotely-operated drones are allowed for approach at no more than 20 metres close. Engagement time of research vessel, during drone operations within 100 metres, is limited to 30 minutes. Permitted unmanned aircraft vessel (UAV) activities must be separated by at least 8 km and may not target the same individuals or groups of animals concurrently.
7. No more than one permitted marine research vehicle may be within 100 metres of the same individual or group of Killer Whales at the same time.
8. If information becomes available that individual Killer Whales have health issues where additional research may contribute to further impacts on the animal or population, this license may be amended or cancelled by DFO.
The study aims at determining sound propagation (detectability over distance) for Killer Whale calls within their habitat including natural and anthropogenic noise conditions. The activities permitted under this license shall assess Killer Whale vocalization ranges, which vary by location, habitat and times of the year. The study aims at better understanding the impact of noise on vocalization ranges and to determine optimal locations for passive killer whale acoustic monitoring stations. Simulated sounds including calls of Killer Whales shall be projected underwater from a stationary source and recorded via hydrophones at various distances and different angles from the source via a mobile platform (small vessel). This information will also be used to determine the optimal locations for passive acoustic monitoring and tracking of whales.
The activities permitted under this license include the following:
1. Simulated sounds including calls of Killer Whales may be projected underwater from a stationery source (anchored vessel) via an underwater sound projector suspended at a fixed depth of either 10 or 25 m and recorded via two or more hydrophones at various distances and different angles.
2. Sound projection shall not be conducted when cetaceans are present within 5km of the recording and sound projection vessel.
3. The area is to be monitored visually and acoustically for cetaceans for 30 minutes prior to acoustic trials to ensure that no cetaceans are present within 5 km. If cetaceans are present within 5 km, acoustic trials must be delayed or stopped and monitoring for an additional 30 minutes shall continue before acoustic trials can be reinitiated.
This study aims to understand whether prey abundance and accessibility affect the decline of the southern resident killer whale population. It will examine the prey habitat characteristics of southern resident killer whales using hydroacoustics, and compare with those of the northern resident killer whales. Explicit comparison of prey dynamics between the two killer whale populations using ship-based hydroacoustics surveys and focal follows will provide insights into the relative difference in prey field available to the endangered southern resident population.
A comparative study to determine whether Southern Resident Killer Whales are in poor health, and are food limited in the Salish Sea. Prey abundance and presence will be measured using hydroacoustics, while foraging behaviour will be quantified using drones. A limited number of Northern Resident and Transient killer whales will be tagged using short-term suction cup tags.
Southern Resident Killer Whales face a range of threats to their survival and recovery, including increased sound levels and vessel presence in their habitats. This research aims to collect recordings of Southern Resident killer whales echolocation in the wild in order to examine the impacts of increased anthropogenic noise on their foraging abilities.
Using a non-invasive drone, aerial photographs will be collected of killer whales to perform photogrammetry analyses of growth trends and body condition. The primary focus will be on furthering the photogrammetry time series, first started in 2008, on endangered Southern Resident killer whales to support management in their efforts to maintain an adequate food supply in Canada and the U.S. A second photogrammetry time series (since 2014) of other Northeast Pacific killer whale populations, notably Transients, will be continued to provide comparisons.
A comparison of the relative impacts of nutrition and toxicant exposure on reproduction of the Southern Resident killer whales, Bigg's Transient killer whales and baleen whales using non-invasive measures of analyzing hormone metabolites and toxicants from fecal sample collection.
Southern Resident Killer Whales face a variety of threats in the Salish Sea including reduced prey availability, and increased noise levels and vessel traffic. This study is an investigation of disturbance risk factors on Southern Resident Killer Whales through evaluation of sub-surface behaviour and activity using suction cup tags. Relative daily foraging rates and received noise levels will be quantified and compared to data collected from Northern Resident Killer Whales. Additional health and diet data of killer whales and humpback whales will be collected and analyzed through predation event and fecal sample collection.
Parks Canada is a dedicated partner in the Government of Canada's efforts to support the recovery of Southern Resident Killer Whales and health of all marine mammals. Parks Canada will perform surveys and monitor activity within, and adjacent to, the marine waters of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve in an effort to contribute to overall understanding of presence, population size, and use of critical habitat by Southern Resident Killer Whales and other marine mammals.
Parks Canada is a dedicated partner in the Government of Canada's efforts to support the recovery of Southern Resident Killer Whales and health of all marine mammals. Parks Canada will perform surveys and monitor activity within, and adjacent to, the marine waters of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve in an effort to contribute to overall understanding of presence, population size, and use of critical habitat by Southern Resident Killer Whales and other marine mammals.
Closest approach distance for photo identification is 200m for killer whales and 40m for other cetaceans. Acoustic samplings using a portable hydrophone is permitted to a minimum of 200m to killer whales or 100m of other cetaceans. Vessel approach must maintain a 3-4 knot speed and stay behind or to the side of any individual or group of whales. Vessel engines and depth sounders must be off while collecting acoustic samples. Engagement time is limited to 30 minutes per whale, per day.
A comparative study to determine whether Southern Resident Killer Whales are in poor health, and are food limited in the Salish Sea. Prey abundance and presence will be measured using hydroacoustics, and foraging behaviour of Southern Resident and Northern Resident Killer Whales will be quantified using drones and short-term suction-cup tags.
A comparison of the relative impacts of nutrition and toxicant exposure on reproduction of Southern Resident killer whales using non-invasive measures of analyzing hormone metabolites and toxicants from fecal sample collection.
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The Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, as the Minister responsible for Parks Canada Agency, have formed the opinion that the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW), is facing imminent threats to its survival and recovery.
Critical Habitat Orders
Two distinct populations of Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) occupy the waters off the Pacific coast of Canada: the Northeast Pacific Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population and the Northeast Pacific Northern Resident Killer Whale (NRKW) population. Although the ranges of these two populations overlap, they are acoustically, culturally, and genetically distinct from each other. As of November 2018, the SRKW population consisted of 74 individuals in one acoustic clan while the NRKW population consisted of approximately 309 individuals in three acoustic clans. Both populations feed primarily on salmonids, specializing on chinook and chum.
The Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, pursuant to subsections 58(4) and (5) of the Species at Risk Act, hereby make the annexed Critical Habitats of the Northeast Pacific Northern and Southern Resident Populations of the Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) Order. This Order hereby replaces the "Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada: Critical Habitat Protection Statement" posted September 10, 2008.
Recovery Document Posting Plans
Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), the competent Minister(s) must prepare a recovery strategy within one year of listing a species on Schedule 1 of SARA as endangered and within two years of listing a species as extirpated or threatened. A management plan must be prepared within three years for a species listed as special concern.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is accountable for 111 of the 518 species listed under SARA. As of February 2016, proposed recovery strategies, management plans and action plans for 57 of those species have not yet been posted to the Species at Risk Public Registry. An additional 23 aquatic species have proposed management or action plans coming due in the future.
The following outlines the Department’s plan for posting proposed documents for 64 species on the Species at Risk Public Registry. The Department has a plan to post recovery strategies for 9 species, management plans for 13 species, and action plans for 42 species over the next year.
Original publication of the Recovery Document Posting Plan: 2016-05-02