Species Profile

Killer Whale Northeast Pacific offshore population

Scientific Name: Orcinus orca
Other/Previous Names: Killer Whale (Northeast Pacific offshore population),Killer Whale (Offshore population)
Taxonomy Group: Mammals
COSEWIC Range: Pacific Ocean
COSEWIC Assessment Date and Status Change: November 2008
COSEWIC Status: Threatened
COSEWIC Status Criteria: Met criterion for Endangered, D1, but designated Threatened, D1, because the population appears to be stable and threats do not appear to be currently severe enough to be negatively affecting the population.
COSEWIC Reason for Designation: This population has a very small number of mature individuals (~120). It is subject to threats from high level of contaminants, acoustical and physical disturbance, and potential oil spills. However, the population is monitored and appears to be stable.
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 offshore population was designated Special Concern in November 2001. Status re-examined and designated Threatened in November 2008.
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Threatened
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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Quick Links: | Photo | Description | Distribution and Population | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | Recovery Team | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Killer Whale

Killer Whale Photo 1

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Description

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 this unmistakable species. Adult males may reach 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 average length of adult Killer Whales in Canadian Pacific waters, however, is smaller than these maximum lengths. Three distinct groups, or ecotypes, of Killer Whale inhabit the waters off British Columbia, each exhibiting different prey preferences, dialects and social organization. The Resident, Bigg’s (also called Transient) and Offshore Killer Whale ecotypes are believed to be socially and genetically isolated, despite sharing the same waters. Resident Killer Whales feed exclusively on fish (primarily 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. The first sight of a Killer Whale is usually of its iconic triangular dorsal fin, which can reach up to 1.8 metres in height on an adult male. In females and young Killer Whales, the dorsal fin is curved and less than one metre tall. Offshore Killer Whales tend to be smaller and have more nicks and notches in their dorsal fins than the Resident and Bigg’s Killer Whale ecotypes.

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Distribution and Population

In 2013, the population of Offshore Killer Whales was estimated to consist of approximately 300 individuals. Offshore Killer Whales have been found to have a matrilineal social structure similar to Residents and Bigg’s Killer Whales, but are unique in that they are very sociable with each other, across the entire population. They are mostly encountered in large aggregations, often in groups of 50 to more than 100 individuals. Offshore Killer Whales appear to be the widest-ranging ecotype of Killer Whale in the northeast Pacific Ocean; those identified in British Columbia have also been seen from the Bering Sea to southern California. The population is known as ‘Offshore’ due to its range relative to the coast; they are infrequently encountered in inshore waters, and predominantly inhabit continental shelf-edge and outer Canadian Pacific waters.

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Habitat

Killer Whales are the most widely-distributed mammals in the world. Although they are more commonly found in areas associated with high ocean productivity, in the mid to high latitudes, they can tolerate temperature ranges from polar to tropical waters. In Canada, Killer Whales are found in all three oceans, but are less common in Atlantic and Arctic regions. In British Columbia, they have been observed throughout almost all marine waters, including long inlets, narrow passages and deep embayments, as well as occasionally up brackish river channels. Perhaps the most important aspect of habitat for Offshore Killer Whales is the abundance and availability of their prey. In British Columbia, Offshore Killer Whales are known to prey on Pacific Sleeper Shark, Blue Shark, North Pacific Spiny Dogfish, Chinook Salmon, and Pacific Halibut. 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.

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Biology

The following description of the biology of the Killer Whale is based on data from both the Northern and Southern Resident populations, since these are the most studied groups. Life history characteristics, such as gestation period, may vary between populations. General biological knowledge of Offshore Killer Whales is sparse. Both males and female Killer Whales reach sexual maturity at 15 years of age on average. The gestation period of the Killer Whale is typically 16 to 17 months. The interval between calving is usually about five years, and females typically produce five calves over a 24-year reproductive period. At birth, the length of calves range from 2.2 to 2.6 metres. Calving occurs year round, but appears to peak between fall and spring. Mortality rates vary with age and population; neonatal mortality (from birth to six months of age) is high, even as high as 50% in one study. The average life expectancy is about 46 years for females and 31 years for males.

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Threats

While a variety of threats may directly or indirectly impact Offshore Killer Whales, they are particularly vulnerable to harmful events (e.g. oil spill, underwater explosion) as they are typically found in large groups, where at least one third of the population may be present in a given time and place. The greatest threats to Offshores include a reduction in prey availability, exposure to contaminants from prey, toxic spills, and acute acoustic disturbance (e.g. mid-frequency active sonar, seismic surveying, marine construction). 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 Offshore Killer Whale population. Natural factors may also impact the survival of Offshore 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); tooth wear, likely caused by eating very abrasive shark skin; and mass stranding or natural entrapment.

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Protection

Federal Protection

The Killer Whale, Northeast Pacific offshore 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.

The Offshore Killer Whale population is listed as Threatened and protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). They are also protected by the Fisheries Act’s Marine Mammal Regulations. These regulations make it an offence to kill, harm or harass Offshore Killer Whales. Fisheries and Oceans Canada has collaborated with other organizations to develop whale watching guidelines, and additional public outreach measures are being taken to minimize potentially negative interactions between boats and whales.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.

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Recovery Team

Offshore Killer Whale Recovery Team

  • Jonathan Thar - Chair/Contact - Fisheries and Oceans Canada
    Phone: 604-666-3811  Fax: 604-666-3341  Send Email

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Recovery Progress and Activities

Because they were previously listed as Special Concern under SARA, a Management Plan for the Offshore Killer Whale was finalized in December 2009. A recovery strategy is being developed, reflecting its updated Threatened status. Since 1973, Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) Nanaimo, British Columbia-based Cetacean Research Program has been conducting annual research on the populations and habitat use of Killer Whales. Offshore Killer Whales have been rarely and sporadically encountered over the four decades of field studies; however, passive acoustic monitoring employed in the past decade augments those annual surveys with year-round underwater recordings of their vocalizations, shedding further light on their seasonal occurrence in Canadian Pacific waters. When Offshore Killer Whales have been encountered during surveys, fragments from their meals have been collected from the surface, to better understand their diet. A number of non-governmental organizations contribute to the recovery of Offshore Killer Whales by collecting and analyzing sightings data, educating the public and boaters about whale watching guidelines and threats to the animals, and conducting research in areas not regularly visited by DFO’s annual surveys.

Documents

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.

51 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Killer Whale, Offshore population (2009-11-25)

    This population has a very small number of mature individuals (~120). It is subject to threats from high level of contaminants, acoustical and physical disturbance, and potential oil spills. However, the population is monitored and appears to be stable.

Recovery Strategies

  • Recovery Strategy for the Offshore Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) in Canada (2018-11-07)

    The offshore population of killer whales is dissimilar from its sympatric resident and transient ecotypes in behaviour, diet, morphology, acoustics and genetics. Encounters with offshore killer whales have been relatively infrequent, and efforts to catalogue members of this population have been challenging given sparse sightings, their large group sizes and more pelagic habitat.

Action Plans

  • Multi-species Action Plan for Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site (2016-07-04)

    The Multi-species Action Plan for Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site meets the requirements for an action plan set out in the Species at Risk Act (SARA (s.47)) for species requiring an action plan that occur inside the boundary of the site. This action plan will be updated to more comprehensively include measures to conserve and recover the marine species at risk once the first integrated Land, Sea, People management plan for Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve & Haida Heritage Site (hereafter called Gwaii Haanas) is complete. Measures described in this plan will also provide benefits for other species of conservation concern that regularly occur in Gwaii Haanas.
  • Multi-species Action Plan for Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada (2017-08-24)

    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.

Management Plans

  • Management Plan for the Offshore Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) in Canada (2009-12-29)

    The offshore killer whale is a marine mammal and is under the responsibility of the federal government. The Species at Risk Act (SARA, Section 65) requires the competent minister to prepare management plans for species listed as special concern. The offshore killer whale was listed as a species of special concern under SARA in 2003. The development of this management plan was led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada – Pacific Region, in cooperation and consultation with many individuals, organizations and government agencies, as indicated below. The plan meets SARA requirements in terms of content and process (SARA sections 65-68).

Orders

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2009 (2009-08-28)

    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

Recovery Document Posting Plans

  • Recovery Document Posting Plan - Fisheries and Oceans Canada - Fiscal Year 2016-2017 (2018-09-28)

    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
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