Endangered Species Act Status of Puget Sound Killer Whales

Killer whales are widely distributed in the world's oceans, but the status of most populations of killer whales is unknown.  All killer whale populations are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).  Only two populations receive special protections under Federal Law:  The Southern Resident Population was listed as endangered in 2005 under the Endangered Species Act and are considered depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  The AT1 Transient population is also considered depleted under the MMPA. 

The Southern Resident killer whales spend several months of the summer and fall each year in Washington State's Puget Sound. The population is composed of three family groups of whales that have been named J, K, and L pods. Individual animals are identified by a number based on pod membership and birth order.The Southern Resident population has fluctuated considerably over the 30 years that it's been studied. All three Southern Resident pods were reduced during 1965-75 because of captures for marine parks. In 1974 the group comprised 71 whales, peaked at 97 animals in 1996, and then declined to 79 in 2001. The population now numbers in the 80s.

There is a limited number of reproductive-age Southern Resident males, and several females of reproductive age are not having calves. The factors causing the decline of Southern Residents are not well known, and are likely to continue until we learn more about what needs to be done to reverse this trend. Some of the possible causes of decline are: reduced quantity and quality of prey; persistent pollutants that could cause immune or reproductive system dysfunction; oil spills; and noise and disturbance from vessels.

In 2014, NOAA Fisheries released a report highlighting the accomplishments of the 10 years of dedicated research and conservation of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population.  With a decade of federal funding and productive partnerships with the killer whale community, we have taken targeted actions, collected substantial new data, and refined scientific techniques to protect this listed species and ensure a strong foundation for its recovery.  See our 2014, 10 Year Southern Resident Killer Whale Report.