Washington issues emergency order to protect endangered Southern Resident killer whales

Elaine Thompson/AP file photo
·6 min read

A mixed bag of encouraging and discouraging news from recent drone photographs has prompted Washington state to issue an emergency order increasing the distance boats are required to stay away from the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Commercial whale-watching vessels must now keep at least a half nautical mile away from the Southern Residents this summer, according to a news release from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and all boaters are urged to do the same.

The move came after researchers from the Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3) team, using measurements from recent drone photographs, identified that several orca whales were pregnant, but several more were found to be in poor condition between September 2021 and April 2022, according to the release.

“While we have reason to remain hopeful with the reports of recent pregnancies, the reality is that there are several Southern Residents that aren’t doing well and we’re very concerned about the population at large,” fish and wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said in the release. “We’re taking action today to address these immediate concerns, and we continue working with our partner organizations to implement the Governor’s Task Force recommendations for the long-term health of these orcas.”

Using the aerial images from September 2021, SR3 determined that three K-pod whales (K12, K20 and K27) were at least nine months into pregnancy and likely within six months of giving birth, with a typical orca full term lasting 17 to 18 months, according to the release. Recent online videos have shown a calf swimming with K Pod off the Oregon Coast, meaning at least one of those pregnancies is believed to have been successful.

But along with that encouraging news came the report that researchers found 12 members of the J- and L-pods in poor condition, based on the measures of the fatness behind the skull, the release states. That puts them at two- to three-times higher risk of dying.

Even more concerning, according to the release, is that one of the whales who was found in poor condition (L83), appeared to be pregnant when measured in January, putting her pregnancy at greater risk.

Additionally, two other young whales (J53 and L123) exhibited slower growth than was expected and J53 was exhibiting lower-than-average body condition, the release states.

“Our non-invasive photogrammetry research can identify whales in poor health that have a higher risk of death in the subsequent months, and our aim is to identify these vulnerable whales before their condition becomes terminal,” SR3 Marine Mammal Research Director Dr. Holly Fearnbach, said in the release. “Similarly, we can identify females in the latter stages of pregnancy, which is an important but fragile time for successful reproduction.”

Emergency rule

Based on the aerial photograph analysis done by SR3, 13 Southern Resident whales were declared “vulnerable” by Fish and Wildlife, according to the release. Under the department’s Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program, motorized commercial whale watching operators are prohibited from approaching within a half nautical mile bubble around orca designated vulnerable and their traveling companions.

According to Thursday’s emergency rule, the vulnerable orca include one calf (J56), five adult females (J36, L54, L83, L90 and L94), one juvenile (J49) and four sub-adult males (J44, L110, L116 and L117).

Additionally, L72 received vulnerable status, because she remains in late-stage pregnancy.

If any of the three K-Pod whales are found to still be pregnant, then they also are afforded the vulnerable status and must be given more space, according to the emergency rule.

The news restrictions will be in effect through September, according to the release, but it does not impact viewing of other, healthier populations, such as the Bigg’s killer whales or humpback and gray whales.

“Whale-watching operators are often the first to spot and identify Southern Residents when they’re present in the Salish Sea,” Pacific Whale Watch Association Executive Director Erin Gless said in the release. “Our operators will be working closely with WDFW officers to communicate Southern Resident sightings whenever they’re spotted, while still giving them plenty of space.”

Additionally, all boaters are encouraged to follow the rules set out for commercial whale-watching vessels and treat all Southern Residents as vulnerable, even if they are unsure if the vulnerable whales are nearby.

Washington state law requires all vessels to stay at least 300 yards from all Southern Resident killer whales and at least 400 yards out of the path of the whales, according to the release. All vessels also must reduce their speed when Southern Residents are within one-half nautical miles.

“Each and every boater willing to stay farther away from orcas is critical, particularly when we have so many orcas doing poorly,” Fish and Game’s Killer Whale Policy Lead Dr. Julie Watson said in the release. “We urge everyone to Be Whale Wise and give orcas as much space as possible — especially if you are unsure whether one of these vulnerable individuals may be present — to allow this endangered population a chance to recover.”

Failing to thrive

The Southern Resident killer whales were listed under the 2005 Endangered Species Act, according to the release.

The Center for Whale Research’s census in December 2021 found there were 73 orca, though J59 was found in early 2022 and there are reports of a birth in the K-Pod being spotted in May, according to the release.

It is hoped that the pregnancies found in SR3’s research will help the Southern Resident population grow, the release states.

The orca face three main threats, according to the release:

A lack of food.

Contaminants in their food.

Vessel noise and disturbance making it difficult for them to forage for food and communicate using echolocation.

A new study released earlier this week by the University of British Columbia found that undernourishment is one of the main reasons the Southern Residents haven’t been able to successfully rebuild their population numbers, as they likely have been going hungry for years.

“There is this big question of trying to understand why this population cannot thrive,” UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries Fanny Couture, who served as the lead author for the study, told CBC. “If you think about a human — if you did not eat enough, you would find yourself not being able to do other things, like socializing for example.”

While killer whales need to eat 170,000 calories per day, or about 85 times what humans eat, the study found the Southern Residents have not had enough to eat in six of the last 40 years. Couture told CBC the study highlighted the need to look at different factors impacting the orcas’ food source and “the urgency of doing something for the killer whales.”