Species Spotlight: Killer Whale
Common name: Killer Whale
Killer Whales have a wide range, and are found in all of the world’s oceans, but generally prefer colder regions. Occasionally, they are even found in rivers and in brackish water and have been documented off the coasts of central California and southeastern Alaska.
In Canada, they can be found in all three oceans, and occasionally in the Hudson Bay and Gulf of St. Lawrence. They have been found in almost all of British Columbia’s salt-water areas, and in a few fresh-water sites. They are highly sociable and live in family-related groups called pods, which can range in size from 5 to 50 whales. Pods are generally led by females.
The whales feed on a wide variety of prey including salmon, squid, octopus, sea turtles, sea birds, sea and river otters, cartilaginous fish, and cetaceans. Particular populations are believed to specialize in certain types of prey.
Sexual maturity is considered to be 15 years of age on average, with a documented gestation period in captive animals of 12 to 17 months. The interval between calving is estimated from 2 to 12 years and occurs year round with a peak period between fall and spring. This species is very protective of its young.
The Killer Whale has no natural predators, but due to its frequent travels in busy fishing lanes and heavily populated areas, which results in collisions with recreational and fishing vessels, entanglement in fishing gear, and exposure to environmental pollution, the death rate for whales aged birth to six months is estimated as high as 50%. Whales are also threatened by loud underwater noises from dredging and declining salmon stocks.
What is Being Done
Legislation to protect the species was first introduced in 1970, under the British Columbia Wildlife Act, and in 1982 they were added to regulations under the Fisheries Act of Canada – prohibiting hunting without a license, except for aboriginal hunting.
In the early 1980s and 90s, the largest fisheries dealing in exportation and fishing of Killer Whales were discontinued; however, it is possible that small numbers are still being harvested. In the United States, the Killer Whale was included under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, and was later added to the International Whaling Commission moratorium in 1980.
Under the Species at Risk Act Registry (SARA), the Killer Whale has been assessed into five distinct populations in relation to their geographic distribution and been given statuses of “Special Concern”, “Threatened” and “Endangered.”
Recently, the federal government issued an order of protection for Killer Whale habitat, after environmental groups filed a lawsuit in October 2008. The new legislation classifies the territories of the Northeast Pacific Northern and Southern Resident Populations of Killer Whale as critical habitat, making it illegal to destroy. The legislation will also lead to further protection under SARA for Killer Whale habitat. Though this move is a positive step towards protecting Killer Whale populations, the whale’s future is still uncertain.
What You Can Do