Action Center

Photo by Mark Gardner

You can make a difference today.

Help Friends of the San Juans advocate for shoreline and near shore habitat protections, oil spill prevention, quieter seas, and more food for Southern Resident Killer Whales in local, state, federal and transboundary task forces, committees, and forums. 

Southern Residents must consume thousands of Chinook salmon every year to survive; in turn salmon must eat thousands of forage fish; and forage fish need natural shorelines and nearshore habitat on which to lay their eggs. All of Friends’ programs help the Southern Residents and this web of connections we all share and depend on. Your support is essential.

Click here to donate to our Orca Protection Fund. Your gift to this fund will support our orca protection work, including participating in the SRKW Task Force through the Vessels Working Group where we will advocate for the needs of SRKWs.

What you can do to support the recovery and protection of Southern Resident Killer Whales:

Support the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force’s recommendations. Click here to learn more about the Task Force. Click here to read the final 2019 report.

Contact elected officials and decision-makers.

  • Engage in San Juan County’s Comprehensive Plan update (contact Katie at katie@sanjuans.org to get on our action alert list).

Protect and support the recovery of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) preferred food, Chinook salmon, including their habitat and what they eat:

Don’t disturb SRKWs’ communications and/or foraging.

Watch whales and other marine wildlife from shore.

If in boat:

Promote safer and quieter shipping.

  • Advocate for oil spill prevention measures, including the requirement for an Emergency Response Towing Vessel near Haro Strait, Boundary Pass, and southern Georgia Strait.
  • Support the retrofitting and construction of newer, quieter Washington State Ferries (WSF). Because ferries represent over 70% of commercial vessel traffic managed by the USCG’s Vessel Traffic Service, reducing ferry noise will have a significant benefit to Southern Residents. The hybrid ferries will also lower greenhouse gas emissions, which is needed sooner than later to address climate change.

Protect clean water.

  • Use orca-friendly and earth-friendly house, garden, and boat products.
  • Dispose of unused medicine and chemicals properly. Never dump them into household toilets or sinks or outside where they can get into ditches or storm drains.
  • No discharging from boats in marine waters.
  • Conserve water. 

Background Information:

 

Watch the video of the March 20, 2019 “Protect What You Love” presentation and community discussion about what we can all do to protect and recover the Southern Resident orcas by clicking here.

The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) are critically endangered. In 2005, our SRKWs numbered 88 when they were listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Today, they are down to just 75 whales — the lowest number in 30 years. They need all of our help, and they need it now!

It was a summer of sadness watching Scarlet’s (J50) death and Tahlequah (J35) hold her dead calf above water for 17 painful days. No new SRKW calves have survived since 2015. Our region has reached a crossroads with two signature species — SRKWs and Chinook salmon.

The San Juan Islands play a critical role for SRKWs who eat Chinook salmon. Salmon need forage fish and our natural beaches are critical spawning ground for forage fish like surf smelt and sand lance, and nearshore eelgrass meadows are nurseries where herring spawn.

Friends of the San Juans advocates for shoreline and nearshore habitat protections, oil spill prevention, safe shipping, quieter seas, and more food for SRKWs. 

There are three major threats to the health of SRKWs and their population growth: the decline of Chinook salmon (the SRKWs’ preferred prey), vessel noise and presence impacts, and the risk of a major oil spill.

Photo of J35 and her deceased calf by Taylor Shedd/Soundwatch (photo taken under NMFS MMPA permit #21114).

Photo by John Durban/NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center

The Decline of Chinook Salmon:

SRKWs depend on a wide diversity of Chinook salmon runs throughout the Northwest. Within the Salish Sea, the Nooksack, Elwha, Dungeness, Skagit, Stillaguamish, Snohomish, Nisqually, Puyallup, Green, Duwamish, Deschutes, Hood Canal, and Fraser river systems are among the rivers most important to the whales for providing Chinook salmon. SRKWs also depend on rivers all up and down the west coast including the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and the Sacramento River in California’s Central Valley. While they spawn in natal rivers beyond the San Juans, our islands marine shoreline are essential rearing and feeding habitat for out-migrating juvenile chinook salmon from across the Salish Sea.

The decline of Chinook salmon is the result of a multitude of factors including overfishing, the damming of rivers, stormwater runoff, shoreline development that has impacted their habitats and those of forage fish, the decline of forage fish populations, climate change, and disease exposure from Atlantic salmon net pens.

Vessels:

Vessel noise and presence cause on-going impacts to SRKWs. Higher frequency underwater noise, typically from recreational and small commercial boats, masks SRKWs’ echolocation (how SRKWs find and capture their preferred food, Chinook salmon). Lower frequency underwater noise, typically from large commercial ships, interferes with SRKWs ability to communicate, causing SRKWs to expend more energy making louder calls and using higher frequencies on their calls.  Even the presence of non-motorized boats causes SRKWs to change their behavior and expend more energy.

The 50 kHz frequency of the sonar in echo-sounders overlaps with the frequency of SRKW echolocation. Studies are underway to see if this impacts SRKWs.

Because SRKWs are not getting enough to eat due to the decline in Chinook salmon, any interference with their ability to find scarce prey and any unnecessary expenditures of energy further impacts the health of SRKWs and the growth of their population.

Oil Spill Risk:

SRKWs were listed as Endangered in 2005 in part because of concerns about potential oil spill impacts, particularly if the entire population is together in the vicinity of a spill.[i]

The 1988 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound Alaska caused an unprecedented high number of killer whale deaths in the two populations that were swimming through Prince William Sound at the time of the spill. The population of the AB pod is showing signs of a slow recovery; however, the transient AT1 population will likely become extinct.

Change in numbers of killer whales in resident (AB) pod and transient (AT1) population that occur in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The vertical line indicates the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. `{`ii`}`

Pollution:

Toxic chemicals accumulate in whale blubber. When there’s not enough for SRKWs to eat, the toxins are released, impacting their health and ability to reproduce. Toxins such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) enter our marine waters primarily through stormwater, wastewater (when treatment hasn’t fully reduced the toxic load coming from wastewater treatment plants), and legacy contaminants such as creosote pilings.

Additional Resources:

Washington State’s Vessel Regulation Protecting Southern Resident Killer Whales

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries SRKW Webpage

Be Whale Wise Guidelines

Soundwatch (the Whale Museum’s boater education program)

Straitwatch (a Canadian stewardship program focusing primarily in the waters around Victoria and the Southern Gulf Islands)

Pacific Whale Watch Association’s Whale Watching Guidelines

The Whale Trail (a map showing places to see whales from shore on the west coast)

[i] Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Endangered Status for Southern Resident Killer Whales, Federal Register Vol. 70, No. 222 (November 18, 2005) 69903 – 69912

[ii] Esler et al., 2017. Timelines and mechanisms of wildlife population recovery following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography Volume 147, January 2018, Pages 36-42, 10.1016/j.dsr2.2017.04.007 See also Matkin, C.O., Saulitis, E.L., Ellis, G.M., Olesiuk, P., Rice, S.D. Ongoing population‐level impacts on killer whales Orcinus orca following the ‘Exxon Valdez’ oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 356, 269–281. (2008).

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