The Salish Sea – The return of Southern Resident killer whales to the Salish Sea means those who live, play and work on the water must be diligent about respecting new regulations and guidelines for co-existing with the critically endangered animals.
After an unprecedented absence of almost two months, two of the three pods that make up the southern resident population, J and K pod, were spotted off San Juan Island in the early hours of July 5. Among the group was the new calf, J56, born at the end of May this year. The calf, which has been identified as a female, was seen swimming alongside her mother, J31. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) reported encountering members of all three southern resident pods off the west coast of Vancouver Island last week, but this is the first sighting of the whales in their critical feeding habitat this summer.
The southern residents traditionally spend the summer months foraging for Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea. However, with no sightings in the area for all of June, researchers suspected that the southern residents were searching for Chinook in California and the west coast of Vancouver Island.
“Southern resident killer whales are seriously challenged by reduced availability of their primary food source, Chinook salmon,” said Ocean Wise researcher Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard. “Major declines in Salish Sea Chinook stocks may mean that the southern residents are having to look elsewhere for their food.”
Barrett-Lennard and colleagues from NOAA and SR3 are using a drone to take high-resolution aerial photos of killer whales and employing a technique called photogrammetry to measure the whales’ lengths and shapes to assess body condition (fatness). This non-invasive technique will help to determine if the southern resident killer whales are finding enough food.
The confirmed presence of southern resident killer whales in their critical habitat initiated the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation Program (ECHO)’s voluntary vessel slow down. The Port of Vancouver-led initiative is asking ships to slow down to under 11 knots in Haro Strait, a key summer feeding area for these whales. Underwater noise from vessels can disrupt critical life processes necessary for survival such as communicating and foraging by masking echolocation and vocalizations.
Following the introduction of new fishing restrictions by DFO this year closing recreational and commercial fishing areas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Gulf Islands, it is hoped that two of the primary threats to the southern resident population (limited prey availability – primarily chinook salmon, and vessel disturbance) will be reduced. While it’s exciting to be able to welcome these special animals back to the Salish Sea, it is important to give them their space to forage.
You can help protect these animals by keeping your distance while out on the water. Give all populations of killer whales in designated critical habitat at least 400m of space, and reduce your speed to under 7 knots when within 1000m of killer whales. Failure to comply can result in penalties under the Fisheries Act. You can read more about the new regulations at http://wildwhales.org/bewhalewise/
Report any violations of these regulations to Fisheries and Oceans Canada at 1-800-465-4336, and be sure to report your sightings of killer whales and other cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) using the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network’s WhaleReport app. You can help support killer whale research by symbolically adopting a member of the southern resident killer whale population through Ocean Wise’s Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program.
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Communications Manager │ Ocean Wise