San Juan County Southern Resident Killer Whale Stewardship Efforts

The Marine Resources Committee is a voluntary citizens advisory group that advises the San Juan County Government on issues related to marine resources.

Our mission is to protect and restore the marine waters, habitats, and species of the Salish Sea to achieve ecosystem health and sustainable resource use.

Established in 1996, the MRC has been hard at work through the years. We've aided in orca recovery, advised salmon restoration, and have helped make our beautiful county what it is today.

We welcome you to join us as we travel through the MRC’s and County’s efforts to support the recovery of our iconic Southern Resident killer whales.


"Joining In"

The 1990s saw the establishment of the MRC and local stewardship initiatives for Southern Resident killer whales. The County mostly let local groups take the lead in whale efforts, but they asked Rich Osborne, the research director at The Whale Museum, to sit on the MRC and together they were able to assist the San Juan County Commissioners in establishing the first ever county level ordinance restricting the use of personal watercraft (jet skis) in local waters to help protect marine wildlife.

During this decade, the Southern Resident killer whale population experienced a steady decline.

The Southern Resident killer whales have become the icon of the Pacific Northwest. But, they have struggled to recover from the impacts of removal for the captive industry during the 1960s and 1970s. Continuous growth in the Salish Sea region as well as changes in global ocean conditions put pressure on marine life and the local whale population continued to dwindle.

Killer whales continue to be a draw to the public in part because of our proximity to the whales' habitat. In the early 1990s, the Free Willy movies (filmed in the San Juan Islands) put the whales in the spotlight, sparking public and commercial interest in seeing them in the wild. Documentaries like Blackfish would later enhance the public interest in wild whales.

1993: Soundwatch Launched

In 1993 with increasing awareness of the Southern Resident killer whales, The Whale Museum began the Soundwatch Boater Education Program to develop whale watching guidelines and to promote marine stewardship by educating boaters on the water. Since 1993, Soundwatch has collected vital data on vessel trends, vessel interactions, and whale behavior.

1994: The Jet Ski Ban

With the population growth came increased recreational and commercial vessel traffic in the San Juan Islands. Concerns over the impacts of jet skis on marine life resulted in the County enacting a ban on personal watercraft in San Juan County. These watercraft travel at high speed, maneuver quickly, are extremely loud above water but quiet under water and have a low profile, making them highly disruptive as well as hard to avoid by marine mammals.

The County ordinance prevented egregious encounters like this one recorded by Alisa Schulman Janiger in California.

1996: The Marine Resources Committee

In 1996 the Marine Resources Committee was established by the County Council to advise the Council about issues that affected the local marine environment.

MRC 2018

Bottomfish Recovery Preserves

The west side of San Juan Island has been widely used for commercial and recreational fishing and boating. It is home to four county, state, and federal preserves and parks, and has had considerable housing and other developments over the years. This beautiful area is also adjacent to the main commercial shipping and military exercise corridor for both the U.S. and Canada.

Areas along the west side of San Juan Island are also important to bottom-dwelling, long-lived rockfish. To protect these fish the MRC designated eight voluntary no-fish zones around the county as one of their first actions.

Painted Greenling

In these early years, the Soundwatch program was tasked with promoting and monitoring these rockfish preservers. One of these preserves was located in the waters off the Lime Kiln Point State Park lighthouse on the west side of San Juan Island.

The Lime Kiln bottomfish recovery zone also lies within the core summer habitat for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. These whales have called these waters home for thousands of years.

The west side was recognized as an essential area for the whales--a place they could be regularly seen foraging and socializing along the kelp line close to shore. This made an area within the Lime Kiln Point State Park an excellent place to designate as the world’s first dedicated shore-based Whale Watch Park in 1994

Shortly after Rich Osborne and Kari Koski of the Soundwatch program worked with the whale watch industry to create a voluntary vessel exclusion zone extending on either side of the established bottomfish recovery zone to provide some respite for the whales, creating the voluntary no-go zone for vessels in 1996.

Boaters were asked to stay a quarter-mile offshore along the westside and a half-mile off Lime Kiln when whales were present. This no-go zone supported the rockfish recovery zones as well as several marine wildlife refuge. The MRC later adopted these same voluntary no-go zones as part of the Marine Stewardship area.


"San Juan County Looks into Whale Watch Management"

The MRC and the County, as well as Washington State and the U.S. and Canadian federal governments became more active in Southern Resident killer whale stewardship efforts.

Listing Begins

By 2001 the Southern Resident killer whale population had declined to 78 whales.

In 2001 Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) designated Southern Residents as endangered.

In the same year, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) was petitioned to list the resident orcas as endangered but denied listing citing insufficient evidence that the Southern Resident killer whales were a unique population.

Southern Resident killer whale population declines and consideration for federal and state protection listings prompted many local community groups, NGO’s, county, state, provincial and federal governments to become involved in whale watch management issues for the first time. Over the summer of 2000, a petition to adopt whale watch regulations in San Juan County was circulated by a citizens group called ORCA Relief. Over 1,400 San Juan County signatures were collected, prompting the San Juan County Commissioners to look into creating whale watching regulations for San Juan County. The MRC was asked to gather information on the status of the whales and current whale watch practices to develop regulation proposals. A series of public workshops were conducted involving regional scientists, federal and state managers, commercial whale watch operators, and local NGO’s. The MRC proposed both a no-vessel traffic zone, and a limited entry permit system to reduce vessel traffic in county waters.

Boat parked in the path of whales in 2003 (pre-regulations). Photo: NOAA taken under U.S. MMPA/ESA Permit

When the county commissioners proposed the regulations, it was unclear as to whether they had any jurisdiction. The county investigated the legality of such regulations and concluded that San Juan County did not have legal authority to create such regulations. However, the Prosecuting Attorney suggested that the county could:

  1. demand that federal and state officials assume responsibility for the protection of the orcas,
  2. petition the state to obtain authority over the orcas from the Secretary of Commerce,
  3. petition the federal government to designate the orcas as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act,
  4. encourage the federal government to make specific regulations for the Southern Resident Orcas,
  5. to work cooperatively with Canada to create an overriding set of guidelines and
  6. to use existing education programs to educate commercial and recreational boaters about the threats to the orca population.

So, the San Juan County Commissioners wrote to Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and to Congressman Rick Larsen expressing their concern over the Southern Resident killer whales and asked them to support these 6 ideas.

"Becoming Wise to Stewardship"

2002 - Be Whale Wise

Be Whale Wise was born.

“Be Whale Wise is a partnership of governmental agencies, nonprofits, and other stakeholders in the Salish Sea to research, implement and educate best vessel practices to protect the unique and fragile marine resources found in the area.”

In 2001, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) piloted the Marine Mammal Monitoring Project (M3) to assess vessel impacts on marine wildlife in southern British Columbia. Soundwatch and M3 (later, Straitwatch South) acted as transboundary counterparts and developed a joint Be Whale Wise guideline brochure to be used by both programs. In 2002 Soundwatch, M3, NMFS, DFO and the Whale Watch Association worked closely to devise a unified set of basic, easy to understand regional guidelines that addressed whale-watching concerns that all stakeholders could agree to. In May of 2002, all parties signed on to the Be Whale Wise Voluntary Guidelines and they were adopted as the regional best practices. Later, Be Whale Wise became an international recovery campaign, supported by NMFS, WDFW and DFO along with several regional partners, including the MRC and the County. Starting in 2002, NMFS, WDFW, DFO, U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards, and the San Juan County Sheriff Marine Program all conducted periodic vessel patrols with Southern Resident killer whales.

2004: Marine Stewardship Area Created

In 2004 San Juan County commissioners designated the entire county as a Marine Stewardship Area (MSA), designed to protect the valuable marine resources of the islands while allowing sustainable use to occur. An extensive consultation and community engagement process, led by the MRC resulted in the Council’s adoption of the MSA Plan in 2007.

The MSA Plan identified vital action steps for a healthier and more sustainable marine ecosystem, setting strategies around education, community stewardship, management and planning, coordination, and research. Marine mammals were included as a focal target -in part because of the cultural importance for residents and visitors to the MSA. The MSA set a series of conservation targets. For the Southern Resident killer whale, this was to increase the population size to >103 animals by 2020. As of December 2019, the population sits at its lowest since the 1970s at only 73 whales.

2005: NOAA Lists Southern Residents As Endangered.

In 2005, NMFS listed the Southern Residents as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act, citing lack of prey, contamination, and vessel traffic as the main threats to this distinct population.

All listings require recovery plans, special research divisions and science advisory teams. This resulted in U.S. federal money for specific killer whale studies investigating predator/prey relations, toxic contaminants and vessel traffic concerns.

2006: Critical Habitat Designated

The Salish Sea was included as the Southern Resident killer whales Summer Core Critical Habitat because the whales feed on local salmon runs during the summer months. The MRC supported this designation but also recommended that shallow nearshore waters be included because of their importance to the base of the food chain and that NOAA also consider the potential impacts of an oil spill. The waters of San Juan County are at the center of the designated Southern Resident killer whale Summer Core Critical Habitat.

NOAA designated 2,560 square miles of inland waters of Washington State as critical habitat for Southern Resident killer whales.

2007: Regulations Begin

By 2007 Soundwatch was still working hard to educate boaters with the Be Whale Wise guidelines, but poor boating behavior was still an everyday occurrence. After a particularly egregious encounter, Soundwatch asked the County for help. The County stepped up, passing the very first regulations for vessels around Southern Resident killer whales -the first of its kind in the country!

Using the federal ESA listing as a basis and in the absence of any specific laws from higher authorities, the San Juan County Council passed a local ordinance to protect Southern Resident killer whales from vessel harassment by making it illegal to feed or “knowingly” approach within 100 yards of a whale within county waters. This, like the previous jet-ski ban in 1994, was the first time a county enacted vessel regulations for marine wildlife that went above and beyond those of a state or federal government.

Photo: NOAA taken under U.S. MMPA/ESA Permit

In 2008 WA State followed through with their own vessel regulations, and in 2009 NOAA began their federal vessel rulemaking process.

The MRC and County Council continued to engage in proposals to recover and protect the endangered whales. They supported the draft Recovery Plan published by NOAA in 2008 and NOAA's proposed vessel regulations in 2009. The MRC went a step further and highlighted the need for effective enforcement of rules, education that promoted both the new regulations but also a culture of stewardship that put the welfare of the whales first.

There were widespread community concerns to NOAA's proposal to make the voluntary no-go zone mandatory. However, the MRC believed that these concerns could be resolved. A decade on the County & MRC are leading an effort to identify alternative options for giving the whales the space they need to feed on the few remaining Chinook salmon.

2009: Whale Museum and County Parks introduce the KELP program

Concern over potential west side closures prompted the San Juan County Parks to establish a recreational and commercial kayak launch permit for County Parks. The permitted system required trainings before launchings and created a mechanism to record how many kayakers were using the county park. The County partnered with The Whale Museum and NOAA to launch the Kayak Education and Leadership Program (KELP). Soundwatch KELP staff were stationed at the park to help implement the trainings and permits and to record kayak launches and behavior in the park and along the west side. KELP continues to be used to train commercial kayak guides per year. The training covers vessel regulations, guidelines and kayaker specific guidelines around marine wildlife, Wildlife Refuges, and sensitive habitat within the San Juan County Marine Stewardship Area.

2011: Federal Vessel Regulations

To reduce the impacts of vessels on Southern Resident killer whales, NOAA moved forward with establishing federal vessel regulations for all killer whales in Washington State in in-land waters . All marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act which restricts any person or vessel from getting closer than 100 yards of all marine mammals. To aid in the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, vessel approach distances were made regulatory and increased to 200 yards for all vessels, as well as keeping the path of the whales clear up to 400 yards.

2019: A Time of Transboundary Regulatory Action


  • In 2019, DFO included fishing closures to help increase the availability of Chinook salmon and decrease noise disturbance in three Southern Resident killer whale feeding areas.
  • A seasonal mandatory 400-meter approach distance for all killer whales in designated habitat went into effect. New federal Marine Mammal Regulations remain in effect year-round.
  • In partnership with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s ECHO program, commercial vessels are asked to slow down through Haro Strait and Boundary Pass. Inshore traffic are asked to transit further from shore in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Both areas are adjacent to San Juan County.

Washington State:

  • In 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation to better protect Southern Resident killer whales from vessel disturbances and underwater noise including increasing approach distances to 400 yards in front and behind, and never less than 300 yards. In addition, any boat within a half-mile of the whales is required to slow down to 7 knots, or less.
  • To reduce daily and cumulative vessel impacts, WDFW’s authority was also expanded to regulate and license commercial whale watching vessels and is currently developing a commercial whale-watching licensing program.
  • State and wildlife managers are currently promoting the San Juan County Marine Stewardship Area voluntary westside no- go zone (Whale and Salmon Sanctuary) for the first time.
Acoustic monitoring off the westside of San Juan Island using SMRU Consulting’s Coastal Acoustic Bouy’s (CABs), August 2019

San Juan County Today

Despite efforts by local, state, federal and tribal partners, the Southern Resident killer whale population is now at its lowest number since the mid-1970s.

Concern for the whales runs high in the San Juan Islands, where the whales are considered by many to be a part of the community for residents and visitors alike. This concern continues to fuel much of the work of the MRC today. We strive to be the voice that connects the communities of the islands as well as to the decision-makers.

Community Based Influence Over Where Things Go = The Marine Resources Committee

The MRC continue their efforts to reduce impacts to the whales today; their efforts to support killer whale stewardship now include:

  • Whale Warning Flag
  • Exploring options to minimize disturbance for Southern Resident killer whales in their usual and accustomed foraging areas
  • Salmon Recovery
  • Oil Spill Action Prevention and Preparedness

Whale Warning Flag:

The Whale Warning flag was introduced by the MRC in 2018 as a social prompt to help remind boaters of best boating practices in whale waters.

Identifying ways to minimize disturbance for foraging whales in the San Juan Islands.

This County-MRC led effort seeks to combine science and social values to identify quiet zones in high priority foraging areas. The key goals of this project are to:

  • Achieve a balance that is both protective of Southern Resident killer whales but continues to offer traditional uses valued by the community.
  • Produce a template for implementation by other communities to create an interconnected network of quiet foraging areas for Southern Resident killer whales.

Oil Spill Risk and Prevention Action:

“Protection against a major and catastrophic oil spill is the highest environmental priority for San Juan County.”


The creation of this storyboard would not have been possible without the guidance, patience, and expert knowledge of Kari Koski, Rich Osborne, and Frances Robertson, tireless heroes for the Salish Sea. Storyboard created with images by Jenny Atkinson, Phil Green, Jeanne Hyde, Alisa Schulman Janiger, Katie Jones, Dawn Noren, Hillary Eggers Shedd, Taylor Shedd, Ryan Stone, Patrick Robinson, Dave, and Frances Robertson.