San Juan County seeks your help in a study to understand Southern Resident killer whale habitat use and boating values in the San Juans.

The core summer critical habitat of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) is located in the heart of the Salish Sea, a distinction held in high regard by the local community and the Coast Salish tribes that call the San Juan Islands and surrounding region home.

San Juan County and the Marine Resources Committee are currently undertaking a project to identify high priority foraging habitat for the endangered SRKW. Studies show that SRKW are susceptible to disturbance from the noise and presence of vessels. Protecting priority feeding areas could help to mitigate the impact of vessels and thus allow SRKW a better ability to find and capture the scarce fish.

The whales’ need for fish and space is in the spotlight again with the encouraging news of a new calf, J57. This little whale was born September 4th to J35 (Tahlequah), the mother who brought the plight of these animals to the global stage in 2018 when she carried her dead newborn calf around the Salish Sea for 17 days. But the birth of J57 brings new hope for the population.

While it is important that we understand how whales use the west side of San Juan Island and Haro Strait, it is equally important to understand how we humans use and value the area. It is one of the primary migratory corridors for returning Fraser River Chinook, known to make up a majority of the SRKW’s diet in the summer/fall. The area has also been historically important for salmon fishing both for the Local Coast Salish Tribes and later for commercial and recreational fishing, it remains a usual and accustomed fishing and hunting area for Coast Salish Tribes.  

With the west side of San Juan island being a favorite honey hole for fishers, it may also be a location of higher acoustic disturbance from vessels during the summer and early fall season.  Our work specifically seeks to engage local community and interested user groups like yourselves to empower you to help craft sustainable and defensible solutions to the management of vessels on the west side of San Juan Island.

This is being achieved by combining whale behavior data, acoustic monitoring data and social user group data to help us understand how people use and value the west side of the island. This data will allow us to identify important whale foraging areas and how the communities’ values interact with these areas. We hope to propose management ideas that balance protection for SRKW while continuing to allow for traditional uses such as fishing, kayaking and boating.

“We are currently in the process of collecting data from core user groups such as the recreational boating community. This data collection is being achieved through a combination of surveys, focus groups and interviews. Check out the next Waggoner’s newsletter for details on the survey and a link for you to participate. The data collection through this effort will enable us to understand how recreational boaters and others such as fishers, kayakers and whale watchers use and value the west side of San Juan Island, and also allow you to suggest good ideas for future management. The recreational boating community is considered a core user group and so your voice is important  to include in this effort. 

For more information please contact Dr. Frances Robertson at

To understand Southern Resident killer whale habitat use and boating values in the San Juans