​Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program


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 The Southern Resident killer whale has been listed as endangered since 2005, and today only 78 animals remain in the Pacific Northwest. Human activity and a sharp decrease in populations of Chinook salmon, the whale’s main food source, continue to hinder its recovery.

In response, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, SeaWorld, Shell, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration partnered to create the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program, a public-private partnership to aid in the recovery of this iconic species. By funding projects that address salmon research, and the monitoring of killer whale health and habitat restoration, the partnership seeks to increase the killer whale population off the coast of Washington state.  

Salmon Research

Over 80 percent of a Southern Resident killer whale’s summertime diet consists of Chinook salmon. However, the population of salmon has drastically diminished in the Salish Sea, and killer whales are suffering as a result.

The Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program is investing in organizations such as Long Live the Kings, which researches the correlation between salmon and zooplankton. 

“Understanding zooplankton is important to getting a handle on what is driving the survival of the salmon,” said Michael Schmidt, deputy director of Long Live the Kings. “We’re working toward a future with more salmon and thus more prey for killer whales.” 

Health Monitoring

Another key management concern is that killer whales may not be getting enough food during certain times of year. The Vancouver Aquarium, with support from the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program, is using unmanned aerial vehicles to take high-resolution images of the endangered whales. This innovative photogrammetry project allows researchers to closely monitor killer whales’ health by comparing impacts of different salmon runs. 

“Before we started the photogrammetry work, the only way we could tell how killer whales were responding to choices in food was by counting the mortalities,” said Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, head of Vancouver Aquarium’s Cetacean Research Program. “Looking at them from above gives us an entirely different perspective. We can see how wide they are. We can see their entire shape. We can see whether they are pregnant or not. And we can detect very fine-scale differences in body condition, much more reliably than we ever could looking at them from the side.”

Knowing when whales are too thin will help identify salmon runs that overlap with that space and time. “That enables our conservation managers to really focus their efforts where it will be most effective in helping the killer whales,” said Dr. Barrett-Lennard. 

Habitat Restoration

The Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program also funds projects that address the decrease in Chinook salmon at its source. This holistic approach led the program to fund a project hundreds of miles inland from the Salish Sea.

There, in the Puget Sound’s mountain streams and rivers, the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group is restoring habitats for juvenile salmon.  

“Chinook salmon are a species of salmon that stay in their freshwater environment for a full year before they migrate out to the estuary and the ocean,” said Alison Studley, Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group’s executive director. “In order to have healthy habitats for Chinook to survive, we have to have places or them to spend that year.”   

Maintaining a freshwater habitat for Chinook salmon to mature helps sustain and increase the killer whale population in the Salish Sea.

Learn more about the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program here.




Rob Blumenthal, 202-857-0166


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