Enforcement officers hit the water to protect Puget Sound's Southern Resident killer whales from vessels

Fall 2013

The Pacific Northwest is the summer home to a remarkable marine mammal: the iconic and charismatic killer whale. Striking in their stark black-and-white appearance, social, intelligent and laudably familial, they seem designed for human admiration. And they get that in abundance, from pictures of them on local buses and billboards to a flourishing tourist business devoted to on-the-water whale watching.

The Puget Sound-visiting, salmon-eating killer whales are known by their official designation as Southern Resident killer whales, and they are different from killer whale groups that inhabit other parts of the Pacific. The size of the Southern Resident population has always been small. Historically, it was probably never more than a few hundred animals. But today, those numbers have decreased significantly. Down from a peak of almost 100 animals in the 1990s, it currently stands at 82. This decline concerns scientists because killer whales don't mature sexually until about age 15 and females have calves only once every four or five years, making recovery of small populations like this one slow and uncertain.

orca and boat

NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency charged with protecting a wide variety of marine mammals, is so concerned about such low numbers that in 2005 it declared the Southern Resident population endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The agency released a recovery plan for them in 2008. It cited threats to the whales from pollution, a limited food supply (mainly Chinook salmon), and vessel traffic and noise.

Ironically, the very popularity of these killer whales is one of the reasons for scientists’ concern.  Boat traffic can interfere with the whales’ behavior, their social communications, even their ability to find fish to eat. 

In 2011 NOAA put in place new regulations to protect the whales, requiring boaters to remain at least 200 yards away and to stay out of the whales’ path. Monitoring groups on Puget Sound keep track of potentially harmful boating activity around the whales, particularly from private boaters who are drawn to the whales.  

As part of a cooperative effort to educate boaters about the importance of keeping their distance from killer whales, NOAA has provided a grant of $925,000 to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The state will use the money to hire an enforcement officer for a three-year term, who will provide education and enforcement on the water. The new officer will investigate serious violations of the laws protecting the Sound’s killer whales, work with community groups and other federal and Canadian enforcement agencies and devote an anticipated 500 hours each summer to marine patrols. 

The vessel regulations and grant are a significant advancement toward addressing the effect that vessel traffic can have on the whales. But it’s only a part of a much larger comprehensive program to recover Southern Resident killer whales, laid out in the 2008 recovery plan.  NOAA, Washington State, and many other partners will continue to work at reducing all threats to the whales.

NOAA funded this effort under the Endangered Species Act Section 6 Grant Program. To learn more about Southern Resident killer whales, the vessel regulations, and steps you can take to help recover these animals, please visit: