fbpx SOUTHERN RESIDENT ORCA DIET STUDY | Pacific Salmon Foundation

News Release

June 14, 2019


The Pacific Salmon Foundation announced today a $150,000 grant to support research on the availability of Chinook salmon as a food source for Southern resident killer whales. The study will repurpose technology from the Foundation’s Salish Sea Marine Survival Project and is underwritten by a $5 million contribution made to the Foundation by the Government of British Columbia.

“Southern resident orcas are an iconic species for our province and a critical part of marine life,” said Premier John Horgan. “The future of these orcas and wild salmon are intertwined. That’s why we increased funding for the Pacific Salmon Foundation, to help B.C. protect and restore our salmon populations, as recommended by the Province’s Wild Salmon Advisory Council.”

Southern resident killer whales are officially listed as a “species at risk” by the Canadian government and “endangered” by the U.S. government. The poor health of Southern resident killer whales in recent years suggests that they are not getting enough Chinook salmon. Chinook and chum salmon are the principal food source of Southern resident killer whales during the summer and fall. However it is unknown if the poor health of these whales is due to declines in Chinook abundance or the whales’ inability to access them as food due to vessel traffic and underwater noise. Killer whales use underwater sound frequencies to hunt which can be difficult in noisy waters.

University of British Columbia marine mammal scientist, Dr. Andrew Trites, will lead research efforts under the auspices of the Government of Canada’s new ‘Whale Science for Tomorrow’ initiative. The initiative provides funding to Canadian universities for research on endangered whales in Canadian waters. Federal funding for the project was announced by the federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, on March 8 this year.

“This research is novel and timely,” said Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, “and it complements ongoing research we are doing to determine if current Chinook availability is sufficient to support Southern resident killer whales in B.C. Our research will have direct implications for management of fisheries, the conservation of killer whales and the economies of many of our coastal communities in Southern B.C.”

The study will be the first-ever to track the movements of Chinook while killer whales are hunting. It will use acoustic tags implanted onto individual fish that ‘ping’ off underwater receivers. The receivers are situated throughout coastal B.C. waters as part of a partnership between Canada’s Ocean Tracking Network and the Pacific Salmon Foundation. The receivers have been used recently to track juvenile Chinook, sockeye, and steelhead movements and survival through the Foundation’s Salish Sea Marine Survival Project.

The funding will assist with new receivers being placed in Haro Strait, and with fish tagging and tissue analyses. “We will use state of the art genomic approaches to link an adult Chinook salmon’s physiological state to its migration behaviour and survival in areas where killer whales are known to feed. This will allow us to look at how fish stress, energy and health affect their survival. This has never before been done with adult Chinook,” said Dr. Scott Hinch, director of the Pacific Salmon Ecology and Conservation Lab at UBC and co-leader of the project. 

“We believe that wild salmon and ultimately our ecosystems benefit more when we can collaborate and share resources,” said Michael Meneer, president and CEO of the Foundation. “This study is the culmination of funding from the federal and provincial governments, expertise from academia and the scientific community, and real-world experience from the recreational fishing community. We are thrilled to see this level of partnership applied to such an important project.”

The Foundation’s grant was made possible by a $5 million contribution to the Pacific Salmon Foundation from the Government of British Columbia announced earlier this year. The Foundation identified ‘stocks of concern’ as one of the three areas of focus for the funds. Chinook in Southern B.C. have declined dramatically in recent years resulting in recent fishing closures and the widely-held belief that Southern resident killer whales are also declining as a result. This project will be the first supported by the new money.




Elayne Sun
Pacific Salmon Foundation
Cell: 604 340 6940
Email: esun@psf.ca

Katherine Came
Office: (604) 827-4325
Email: k.came@oceans.ubc.ca


About the Pacific Salmon Foundation:

Pacific Salmon Foundation was created in 1987 as an independent, non-governmental, charitable organization to protect, conserve and rebuild Pacific Salmon populations in British Columbia and the Yukon. The Foundation’s mission is to be the trusted voice for conservation and restoration of wild Pacific Salmon and their ecosystems and works to bring salmon back stream by stream through the strategic use of resources and by supporting local communities. www.psf.ca



Media Contacts

For media inquiries contact:
Pacific Salmon Foundation 
Elayne Sun 
Manager, Communications and Marketing