It's all a matter of perception: The noise from whale-watching boats may make it harder for orcas to "see" their prey underwater. And, allegedly, the noise from some whale-watch boat operators has made it harder for people to see a documentary film that suggests their boats contribute to the orca population's decline.
Last month, Mark Anderson, president of the Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance in Friday Harbor, arranged to have a Q13 FOX (KCPQ) documentary about the effects of whale watching on orcas — "Are We Loving Them to Death?" — shown at the Friday Harbor House, a hotel that stands a couple of blocks from the San Juan Island ferry terminal. It didn't happen. The on-line Island Guardian reported that "Chef Kyle Nicholson, who also wears the 'Inn Keeper' hat, said he had received a number of complaints from commercial whale watching operations that the film cast their industry in a bad light, and would have a negative impact on attracting tourists to the islands to watch the whales."
The Guardian reported, "Nicholson said he had not been aware the film was 'controversial,' and did not wish to put the hotel in the middle of a controversy, so he canceled the showing in the banquet room, and a reception at [the hotel's] Bluff restaurant that was to follow."
The documentary — which had aired in 2010 — certainly did cast the whale watching industry in a bad light, reporting: "Study after study show[s] boats have a negative impact on almost every aspect of Orca behavior. For instance, in 2009, David Bain and J.C. Smith found the whales spend less time eating and more time swimming when boats are nearby. . . . In a 2008 study by Marla Holt, she found because of their incredibly sensitive hearing, engine noise can block between 88-100% of a whale's sonar signals. Human generated noise can also cause marine mammals to release increased amounts of stress hormones which are as harmful to them as they are to humans."
That's pretty unambiguous. But evidently, some of the callers were reacting to it sight unseen. The Island Guardian reported that it had "contacted a number of the owners of commercial whale watching companies and found the controversy is alive and well even within their industry, with some operators stating that while then had not seen the film, they would not see it, and did not think it should be shown at the Friday Harbor House."
Whether or not one sees the film, some facts seem clear:
1) Southern Resident Killer Whales (aka Puget Sound orcas) were listed as an endangered species in 2005.
2) Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) feed mainly on chinook salmon. (Other populations chow down on seals and other mammals, but local killer whales are fish-eaters. They'll eat other salmon, but 80 percent of their diet is chinook.)
3) Puget Sound chinook salmon have been listed since 1999 as a threatened species.
4) Columbia River salmon populations, well within the SRKWs' range, have been reduced from an estimated pre-cannery population of 10 to 16 million (some would say 30 million) to perhaps 2 million in an average year. Five Chinook populations that spawn in the Columbia or its tributaries are listed as threatened or endangered (as are several California populations within the killer whales' range); others have already dsiappeared. .
5) And it turns out that Fraser River salmon, which — in the absence of enough fish from Puget Sound and the Columbia — have become the killer whales' staple (at least during the summer; no one really knows what they eat during the winter), aren't entirely organic. Killer whales living in Puget Sound have accumulated a lot of toxic substances in their fat. In fact, says Sam Wasser, director of the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology, they carry "one of the highest levels of PCB [and other toxins] of any mammal in the world."
And then there are the paparazzi. Over the past couple of decades — beginning in the late 1970s and early '80s but mushrooming after the movie Free Willy came out in 1993 — whale watching from small boats has become a big business. (According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, 13 vessels carried perhaps 15,000 passengers a year in 1988; by 1998, 80 vessels were carrying more than half a million.)
Killer Whales use sound waves to echolocate their prey and to navigate underwater. Motorized boats, including those used for whale-watching, produce underwater noise. This underwater noise can interfere with the killer whales' sonar, making it harder for them to spot salmon, and can disturb the whales. ("Killer whales (Orcinus orca) use sound for echolocation, social communication, and passive listening," explains a report done for National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in 2008. "Ambient noise, including that from natural and anthropogenic sources, has the potential to interfere with the reception and use of these important biological sounds. ... Whales spent more time traveling and less time foraging in the presence of boats within 100 and 400 [meters] of the focal whale group than in their absence.")
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has taken note. Because the boats can disturb whales, NMFS has published "regulations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to prohibit vessels from approaching killer whales within 200 yards (182.9 m) and from parking in the path of whales when in inland waters of Washington State." NMFS explained last year in its Federal Register notice that the "purpose of this final rule is to protect killer whales from interference and noise associated with vessels. We identified disturbance and sound associated with vessels as a potential contributing factor in the recent decline of this population."
According to the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, "Three primary hypotheses have been proposed to explain the decline [in the number of Southern Resident Killer Whales]." They include:
"1) Decline in the whales’ primary prey, Chinook salmon;
"2) Disturbance from private and commercial whale watching vessels; and
"3) Exposure to high levels of toxicants (e.g. PCB, PBDE and DDT), which are stored in the whales’ fat.
"Hypotheses 2 and 3 likely interact with Hypothesis 1," the Center's web site explains, "since the impacts of boats and toxicants may be exacerbated by the lack of prey."
Scientists who have studied the subject — and who are quoted or paraphrased in the documentary — say that boat noise compounds the effects of prey scarcity. They basically echo the explanation of the Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance's Anderson. The Friday Harbor resident makes it pretty simple: "In times of dwindling salmon the presence of boats accelerates the starvation of the whales by increasing their need for food and decreasing their ability to obtain it."
Anderson explains that "if you ask a population biologist . . . the effect of the boats is to artificially lower the carrying capacity of the local environment." With boats around them constantly, the whales spend less time feeding, more time diving and doing other things that use up their supplies of energy. They lose weight. Therefore, they metabolize their toxin-laden fat, increasing the stress on their bodies.
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