Reducing the threat of contaminants to Southern Resident Killer Whales

The iconic Southern Resident Killer Whale is celebrated by British Columbians and all Canadians and holds significant cultural meaning for coastal First Nations.

However, these whales are at risk. The population is declining and they are exposed to serious threats.

The three key threats to these whales are:

  • limited availability of their prey (Chinook salmon)
  • physical and acoustic (noise) disturbance 
  • contaminants (response to this threat being led by Environment and Climate Change Canada)

Contaminants impacting Southern Resident Killer Whales

Human activities expose Southern Resident Killer Whales and Chinook salmon, their main food source, to a variety of contaminants.

Contaminants are released via municipal and industrial wastewater, urban and agricultural runoff, and other processes. Contaminants may be transported over long distances from far away sources and include:

Southern Resident Killer Whales are exposed to these contaminants when they are present in their environment or through eating fish that contain contaminants. Since Southern Resident Killer Whales are at the top of the food chain, many of these contaminants accumulate in their body fat. Many contaminants are harmful to the health of whales and can cause damage to their brain and nervous system, reduce their immune system making them more susceptible to disease, and impair their reproductive capabilities.

Measures to protect Southern Resident Killer Whales

The Government of Canada is taking action by working with partners to protect Canada’s endangered whales.

In 2016, the Government launched the $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan to ensure cleaner, healthier, and safer oceans and coastlines. Part of the Plan includes measures to protect marine mammals.

In June 2018, the Government invested an additional $167 million to a dedicated Whales Initiative to protect and support recovery of three whale species, including the Southern Resident Killer Whale.

In October 2018, the Government announced an additional $61.5 million specifically for measures to strengthen protection of Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Fishery management measures include area-based fishery closures to help increase the availability of Chinook salmon and decrease noise disturbance in key whale feeding areas. Interim Sanctuary Zones prohibit vessel traffic to reduce noise and physical disturbance. To avoid disturbing whales, a mandatory vessel approach distance for killer whales is in effect during specific times and Marine Mammal Regulations continue to remain in effect year-round.

In 2018, a Contaminants Technical Working Group (TWG), led by Environment and Climate Change Canada, was created. It includes members from all levels of government, non-governmental organizations, academia, and representatives from Washington State, to help the Government of Canada determine what should be done to assist with Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery. The group identified priority contaminants of concern, developed an inventory database of contaminant releases, built a preliminary visualization tool to map contaminant sources that will be made public once complete, and developed a framework to assess the effectiveness of existing controls on contaminants. The group also reviewed existing guidelines to protect whales and their prey and identified where updates of new guidelines were needed.

The Contaminants TWG recommended long-term actions that focus on:

For more details, please read the 2020 Contaminants TWG Accomplishments report.

In 2022, the Contaminants TWG recommended several short-term specific actions to be taken by partners collaborating on mitigating the threat of contaminants to these whales.

The Government of Canada's contributions to implement these recommendations include:

Pollutants Affecting Whales and their Prey Inventory Tool (PAWPIT)

As part of the Government’s effort to share information and data, the Pollutants Affecting Whales and their Prey Inventory Tool (PAWPIT), accessed using an interactive mapping tool, has been developed.

The inventory tool shows estimates of pollutant releases by all identified sources within the habitats of Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales and their primary prey, Chinook salmon. PAWPIT also displays estimated ambient contaminant loads in the Fraser River Basin, and indicates where environmental quality guidelines were exceeded.

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