Killer Whale (Northeast Pacific Southern Resident Population)

Orcinus orca

SARA Status
No Status
NS
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

SARA Status

  • No Status NS
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX
COSEWIC Status
Not at Risk
NR
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

COSEWIC Status

  • Not at Risk NR
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX

Description

The Killer Whale is the largest member of the dolphin family. Its size, distinctive black and white markings, and tall dorsal fin make it easy to distinguish from other whales. Usually the first glimpse of a Killer Whale will be its iconic 1 to 2 metre tall dorsal fin slicing through the water.  Adult males may reach overall lengths of eight to nine metres, and weigh up to five tonnes; females are about 20% smaller. Based on differences in their dorsal fins and saddle patches (the light patch behind a Killer Whale's dorsal fin), researchers can individually identify each Killer Whale.

Three distinct groups, or ecotypes, of Killer Whale are found in Canadian Pacific waters, each having different prey preferences, vocal calls and social organization. These ecotypes are: Transient (also known as Bigg's), Offshore and Resident Killer Whales. The three ecotypes are socially and genetically isolated from one another, despite sharing the same waters. The Resident Killer Whale ecotype is further divided into Northern and Southern populations. Although these two populations overlap in range, they do not interact, and genetic studies indicate that they do not interbreed.

Resident Killer Whales are some of the most thoroughly studied whales in the world. Over 40 years of research has helped us understand their biology, population dynamics and life history. Both males and females reach sexual maturity at about 15 years of age. The gestation period (pregnancy) of Killer Whales is typically 15 to 18 months, and the interval between calving is around five years. The average life expectancy is 50 years for females and 30 years for males. Given the life history of Resident Killer Whales, the greatest rate at which the population can increase is only three to four per cent annually.

The Southern Resident Killer Whale population has fluctuated between 70 and 99 individuals since 1976, and consisted of 76 members in 2017.  Because of their declining population size and small number they are currently facing imminent threats to their survival and recovery.

Resident Killer Whales are highly social animals and live in distinct family groups called matrilines. Matrilines are usually led by the oldest female family member and are made up of her offspring, and the offspring of her daughters. Both male and female Resident Killer Whales stay with their natal group for life. The Southern Resident Killer Whale population consists of three groups of related matrilines, called pods (J pod, K pod, and L pod). At certain times, pods will join together to create large groups, called “super pods.”

Southern Resident Killer Whales use echolocation to locate their prey. These Killer Whales, like Northern Resident Killer Whales, feed primarily on salmon, specializing on Chinook (Onchorhynchus tshawytscha) and Chum (O. keta).

Habitat

The known range of the Southern Resident Killer Whale extends from southeastern Alaska to central California. During the summer months these killer whales concentrate off the southern end of Vancouver Island and northern Washington State, and are frequently sighted in Haro Strait, Georgia Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

One of the most important features of habitat for the Southern Resident Killer Whale is the availability of their prey, Chinook and Chum Salmon. Chinook Salmon is the predominant prey species taken by Resident Killer Whale populations during May to August, but Chum Salmon becomes an important component of their diet from September to October. The acoustic environment is also an important element of their habitat. An ocean quiet enough for using echolocation clicks and vocalizations is essential for navigation, hunting, cultural and social purposes.

Threats

The greatest threats to Resident Killer Whales are reduction in prey availability, contaminants, and acoustic and physical disturbance; ship strikes have also been recently identified as a threat.  Exposure to toxic spills, interactions with fisheries and aquaculture, and climate change are other human-related threats that may negatively impact the Southern Resident Killer Whale population.

Natural factors may also impact the survival of these whales. These include: diseases, narrow prey selection, complex social structure, late sexual maturity and low birth rate, inbreeding, and mass stranding or natural entrapment.

How current threats may act together to impact Southern Resident Killer Whales is not fully understood, but in other species, multiple stressors have been shown to have strong negative and often lethal effects, particularly when animals carry elevated levels of environmental contaminants.

Further Information

The Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada, published in 2011, includes an overview of threats, recovery objectives and broad strategies to aid in the recovery of these populations, and identifies partial critical habitat that was protected by a SARA Critical Habitat Order in 2009. The objectives outlined in the recovery strategy formed the basis for the 2017 Action Plan for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) in Canada, which describes specific activities and measures needed for recovery.

An amendment to the Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales is currently underway. This amendment incorporates additional important habitat located off southwestern Vancouver Island to be considered as critical habitat for the Southern Resident population, and provides additional description of the features, functions, and attributes of all Resident Killer Whale critical habitat. This area of special importance to be considered for critical habitat was identified in a 2017 Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat Science Advisory Report. As new information on this process becomes available it will be posted to the SARA Public Registry.

In 2016, the Reporton the Progress of Recovery Strategy implementation for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada for the period 2009 - 2014 was published, summarizing initial progress toward achieving recovery objectives in the recovery strategy.

In 2017, under the Government of Canada's Oceans Protection Plan, a science-based Review of the Effectiveness of Recovery Measures for Southern Resident Killer Whales identified and recommended five new recovery activities to address threats to the population. These activities focused on management of fisheries to consider Southern Resident Killer Whale prey needs, and mitigation of contaminants and disturbance (acoustic and physical) threats.

Disturbance (harassment) of marine mammals, including Killer Whales, is prohibited by the Marine Mammal Regulations established under Canada's Fisheries Act and by US federal legislation. Government and non-governmental organizations reduce vessel disturbance through boater outreach and education programs as well as on-water enforcement and vessel monitoring, particularly in Resident Killer Whale critical habitats.

This species isprotected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). As such, it is prohibited to kill, harm, harass, capture,take, possess, buy, sell, or trade any individual Southern Resident Killer Whale.

Since 2009, critical habitat for the Southern Resident Killer Whale has been protected against destruction under a SARA Critical Habitat Order.

More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available on the Species at Risk Public Registry.Additionally, the Marine Mammal Regulations and Pollution Prevention Provisions of the Fisheries Act provide protection to this species.

To find out if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' website.

What can you do?

Killer Whales will get the protection they need only if all Canadians work together to reduce threats. Find out more about Killer Whales and be aware of man-made threats to Southern Resident Killer Whales such as reduced prey and feeding opportunities, acoustic and physical disturbance, contaminants, and collisions with boats.  Report marine mammal incidents including: injury, entanglement or harassment to the Fisheries and Oceans Canada reporting line at 1-800-465-4336. Find out more.

Get to know where Southern Resident Killer Whale critical habitat is located, understand the activities likely to result in the destruction of critical habitat and do your best to reduce your impact in these areas. Following the Be WhaleWise: Marine Wildlife Guidelines for Boaters, Paddlers and Viewers and viewing guidelines can ensure that any disturbance from your activities on the water is minimized.

Join a stewardship program such as the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network. The Network's main goals are to identify key habitats and help reduce threats to whales. The network also solicits cetacean sighting reports from mariners along British Columbia's coast. Find out more.

You can also join the British Columbia Adopt a Killer Whale Adoption program, run in conjunction with the Vancouver Aquarium. Find out more.

Killer Whale (Northeast Pacific Southern Resident Population)

Killer Whale. Photo credit: Jared Towers.

Killer Whale. Photo credit: Jared Towers.

Scientific name: Orcinus orca
SARA Status: Endangered
COSEWIC Status: Endangered (November 2008)
Region: Pacific Ocean

Region map

Regions: Pacific Ocean

Regions: Pacific Ocean

Killer whale. Copyright: Shutterstock.

Killer whale. © Shutterstock.

Did You Know?

It is common for Resident Killer Whales to share food, even a single salmon, among members of their matrilines. That is a close family!

Killer Whale. Photo credit: Cetacean Research Program, DFO.

Killer Whale. Photo credit: Cetacean Research Program, DFO.

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