AMERICA'S WHALES

NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partner with NFWF, SeaWorld and Shell Oil Company to support an endangered population of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest​

​The Southern Resident population of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest represents the only known endangered population in the United States.

These iconic whales remain a defining feature of the ecological and cultural fabric of both tribal and non-tribal communities in coastal areas of the state of Washington. Images of the whales abound in daily life, from public school classrooms to art exhibits, magazine covers, tourism brochures and signs.

This distinct population of killer whales has most recently been declining since the 1990s, despite actions being taken to protect critical habitat and reduce threats. Unfortunately, even with more than two decades of increased protection, the population stands at less than 80 individuals and does not show signs of recovery. Coordinated efforts are needed to understand why the population continues to decline and how strategic investments can aid recovery.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) has joined with SeaWorld, Shell Oil Company, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (NOAA Fisheries) to launch and implement the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program.

VIDEO: Discover how NFWF and partners are helping
Southern Resident killer whales

The Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program supports efforts to advance the knowledge and conservation of killer whales with a primary focus on three key strategies:​​

Increase prey availability

The Southern Resident population diet relies heavily on Pacific salmon, with Chinook salmon representing the majority of their summer diet, and other species including coho, chum, and steelhead being targeted in the spring and fall. The program seeks projects that increase the health of the salmon runs that are important for killer whales.

A young salmon.

Killer whales need bigger salmon, and more of them. Grantees are looking at ways to increase the survivorship and growth of young salmon, increase habitat for larger fish populations and examine factors such as sound in the water that make salmon harder for whales to find.

Grantees are restoring and increasing streamside habitats to increase survivorship of salmon.

Grantees are restoring and increasing streamside habitats to increase survivorship of salmon.

​Improve habitat quality

The quality of killer whale habitat is affected by many different stressors including pollution and contaminants, and vessel traffic and noise. The program supports projects that reduce the source and the impact of these stressors, and therefore lead to improved habitat for killer whales.​
killer whales

NFWF and its partners support efforts by The Whale Museum and others to educate recreational boaters about federal rules protecting endangered killer whales from disturbance.

​Strengthen management through game-changing research​

​The program supports research projects that address information gaps and catalyze effective management actions in key areas, such as improving the monitoring of demographics and distribution, improving the health assessments of whales, and assessing the effectiveness of management interventions.​
To study endangered killer whales, a research team uses a hexacopter custom-built for NOAA.

To study endangered killer whales, a research team uses a hexacopter custom-built for NOAA. | Credit: Vancouver Aquarium, NOAA Fisheries

An adult female Southern Resident killer whale nurses her calf.

An adult female Southern Resident killer whale nurses her calf. | Credit: Vancouver Aquarium, NOAA Fisheries. Taken by UAV from above 90 feet under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.

This photogrammetry image shows an adult male Southern Resident killer whale.
This photogrammetry image shows an adult male Southern Resident killer whale. | Credit: Vancouver Aquarium, NOAA Fisheries. Taken by UAV from above 90 feet under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.

​Press release, Nov. 14, 2018

Southern Resident Killer Whales to Benefit from More Than $700,000 in New Grants from NFWF​

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) today announced $742,000 in grants to help stabilize and recover the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population through projects on the Skagit and Snohomish rivers, around the San Juan Islands, and throughout the Salish Sea. The grants will generate just over $1 million in matching contributions for a total conservation impact of more than $1.78 million.

The grants were awarded through the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program​ (KWRCP), a partnership between NFWF, SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., Shell Oil Company, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and NOAA Fisheries. These investments directly support recommendations in a September draft report from Southern Resident Orca Task Force appointed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

“While I have not yet received the official recommendations from the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, I have no doubt that the grants announced today are a positive development,” said Governor Jay Inslee of Washington. “One of the clear challenges facing orcas is smaller salmon runs leading to less available prey, and these projects seek to reverse this decline and provide a healthier future for Southern Residents.”

The 74 Southern Resident killer whales prey on salmon and other fish, but especially prefer Chinook salmon. The six grants announced today support projects to increase the production, survival, and size of Chinook salmon from runs that NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have identified as critical to the Southern Resident killer whales.

“Saving this apex species is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation, as the Governor’s task force has made clear,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF. “It is only through partnerships supporting a comprehensive approach to conservation that we will be able to reverse the decline of this iconic species of the Pacific Northwest.”

These projects include extensive monitoring to learn how fish hatcheries can best produce the largest salmon when and where the whales most need it, while also protecting wild populations from genetic risks. Projects also include habitat restoration to increase rearing habitat for juvenile fish and carrying capacity for the prioritized Chinook runs, some of which are also imperiled by habitat loss and other factors.

“We are extremely grateful for the support of NFWF and our other partners in funding these critical efforts to improve the health of Southern Resident killer whales over the short and long term,” said Scott Rumsey, Deputy Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “The status of the Southern Resident population is critical, and we all must double down on our efforts to recover these whales and repair the ecosystem they depend on. These grants will advance critical monitoring to better understand how we can improve prey availability in the near term, while also investing in habitat restoration and protection needed for the sustainable recovery of the Southern Residents and the greater Salish Sea ecosystem.”

The KWRCP also supports cutting-edge science, including genetic research, acoustic monitoring and vessel surveys. This research will provide managers with the information and tools they need to help killer whales overcome the threats of pollutants and contaminants in the water, noise, vessel traffic, and lack of prey.

“Focusing on both population and habitat protection is crucial in the recovery of these killer whales. Through these partnerships, and the programs they support through the KWRCP, we are able to address the most critical issues facing this population,” said Dr. Christopher Dold, chief zoological officer for SeaWorld. “Conserving oceans and protecting the animals that live there has been at the core of SeaWorld’s mission for more than 50 years, and we’re honored to continue to support these vital conservation efforts.”

Southern Resident killer whales were listed as endangered in 2005, and NOAA Fisheries has highlighted the population as one of eight national “Species in the Spotlight​,” at greatest risk of extinction. While the population of Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia, which also prey on salmon, is healthy and growing, the 74 Southern Residents have fallen to their lowest number in more than 30 years. The Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program works to understand why the population has failed to recover and takes steps identified in the recovery plan to bring this population back from the brink.

“We are proud to be part of this collaborative effort through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to support regional research and conservation efforts aimed to support the recovery of a species that is iconic to the Salish Sea and the cultural heritage of the Pacific Northwest,” said Shirley Yap, Puget Sound Refinery General Manager, Shell Oil Company.

A Northern Resident killer whale approaches a salmon.
A Northern Resident killer whale approaches a salmon. | Credit: Vancouver Aquarium, NOAA Fisheries. Taken by UAV from above 90 feet under Fisheries and Oceans Canada research permit and Transport Canada flight authorization.

​Press release, Nov. 16, 2017

NFWF Announces More Than $880,000 in Grants to Aid Puget Sound’s Killer Whales​

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) today announced the awarding of $888,265 in grants to increase the recovery potential of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale. The grants will generate $1.3 million in matching contributions for a total conservation impact of more than $2 million.

The grants were awarded through the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program (KWRCP), a partnership that began in 2015 with support from SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This year, Shell added its support to the effort. The company has been a part of the Anacortes community since 1955, and has identified the KWRCP as a key local conservation effort for the region.

The projects supported by the nine grants announced today will help to restore and enhance populations of Chinook salmon, a key prey item for the whales. These projects will focus on scientific research, habitat restoration and bolstering of forage fish levels. Specifically, grantees will work with recreational fishermen to understand the potential significance of the resident Chinook population to killer whales. Additionally, grantees will work with the seven Northwest Straits Marine Resource Committees to protect and restore important forage fish habitat, and support the restoration of 8 acres of juvenile salmon habitat in the Skagit River.

“We are excited to welcome Shell, a long-standing partner of NFWF in several regions of the country, to the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF. “Saving this apex species is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. It is only through partnerships supporting a comprehensive approach to conservation that we will be able to reverse the decline of this iconic species of the Pacific Northwest.”

The program also supports cutting-edge science, including genetic research, acoustic monitoring and aerial surveys using helicopter drones. This research will provide managers with the tools they need to help killer whales overcome the threats they face from poor water quality, noise pollution, vessel traffic, malnutrition and disease.

“Protecting this species has been at the core of SeaWorld’s purpose and mission for decades,” said Dr. Chris Dold, chief zoological officer for SeaWorld. “It’s more important now than ever to support efforts like the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program, and SeaWorld remains committed to giving these animals a chance at survival.”

Less than 90 Southern Resident killer whales remain. While the species has been protected since the 1970s, its numbers have failed to rebuild the way neighboring populations to the north have. The Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program works to understand why the population has failed to recover and takes steps identified in the recovery plan to bring this population back from the brink.

“Working with this diverse group of partners to aid in the recovery of this incredible species is an honor, and we are proud to have this opportunity to help affect change,” said Shirley Yap, Shell Puget Sound Refinery General Manager. “Our refinery has a long history of collaborating with numerous environmental organizations to protect and preserve the communities we live in. By investing in projects that address salmon research and the monitoring of killer whale health and habitat restoration, we hope to help increase the killer whale population off the coast of Washington state.”

Researchers collect killer whale scat to help analyze the health of the marine mammals.
Researchers collect killer whale scat to help analyze the health of the marine mammals. | Credit: North Gulf Oceanic Society.

​Press release, Dec. 15, 2016

NFWF Announces Nearly $500,000 in Grants for Killer Whale Research and Conservation​

​The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) today announced nearly $500,000 in grant support through its Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program (KWRCP). The awards announced today will fund four grants and will be matched by $619,000 in grantee contributions, for a total conservation impact of more than $1.1 million.

The KWRCP funds projects to help study and protect killer whales in the wild, with a particular focus on the Southern Resident killer whale population found off the coast of Washington. This second round of grants under the program was made possible through funding from SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Inc., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“Working closely with our partners, including SeaWorld, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA, we can help protect this imperiled population,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF. “These four grants are an excellent example of the innovative ways that scientists and managers can work together to improve the health of the Southern Resident killer whale population.”

Killer whales play a key role in the ecological and cultural fabric of the Pacific Northwest. Researchers have been increasingly concerned about the health of resident populations of killer whales in this region following a decline in the 1990s due to limited prey availability, noise and pollution levels. The KWRCP was launched in early 2015 to support efforts to advance the knowledge and conservation of killer whales, with a primary focus on three strategies to aid in the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale Distinct Population Segment: increasing prey availability; improving habitat quality; and strengthening management through crucial research.

“At SeaWorld, our vision is to inspire others to preserve our world’s oceans and the animals who live there, and these grants will do just that by contributing critical research to improve the lives of killer whales in the wild,” said Joel Manby, President and CEO of SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. “When you combine what these researchers learn in the field with what scientists are discovering by studying the killer whales in our care, our knowledge of orcas is constantly improving. This research will provide lasting benefits to the health of the killer whale population, particularly the endangered Southern Resident whales.”

Grants awarded in this second slate of projects will fill critical gaps in scientists’ understanding of the role of toxins stored in the blubber of the Southern Resident population. Funded research projects will answer key questions about the release of toxins from the blubber in relation to food availability and in the transfer of milk from mother to calf, in order to assist scientists in evaluating the greatest limiting factors to population recovery. Additional investments will restore juvenile rearing habitat for salmon in the Upper Skagit River in order to increase food availability during critical times of the year.

"Creating Rearing Habitat for Juvenile Salmon in the Upper Skagit River helps provide a key food source for orca populations. These efforts also support healthy salmon populations in the watershed, while benefiting dozens of other native species and providing important recreational benefits to local communities and sustaining a key cultural resource for Tribes," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. "The Service is proud to play a role in this vital program."

 

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