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Do local orcas need a room of their own?

A female orca in L pod, born in 1995, rears her head in Boundary Pass. Credit: Photo: Andrew Reding

The orca iconography in Puget Sound tourist gift shops borders on sappy, but for those lucky enough to have seen an orca in the flesh, the love of these whales is not so hard to understand. Yet the whale tourism industry may also come with a darker side: Are we literally loving the Southern Resident killer whales to death?

The Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance — a non-profit dedicated to reducing the mortality rates of Puget Sound’s endangered local killer whales — thinks we are, through the demand to see orcas via boat-based whale watching tours. So the organization is pushing for the establishment of a whale protection zone on the west side of San Juan Island, where the orcas frequently hunt and rest.

As Mark Anderson, the group’s founder and chairman, explains, disturbance noise from boats interferes with the sonar the whales use to communicate and to hunt. “It’s like a loud piece of music, right over the frequencies they use,” Anderson says. Putting further restrictions on boats within this zone “would be like giving them a dining room they can use without harassment.”

The proposed whale protection zone would create a ¾-mile no-go zone for whale watch operators and recreational boaters off the west side of San Juan Island. The same rules would not apply to fishing vessels and motorless boats, like kayaks. Another ¼-mile "no wake" buffer area would extend beyond the whale protection zone to keep boat speeds down near the area.

As described in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) June 2014 report on the status of Southern Resident killer whales, noise disturbance is one of the three major factors forcing the southern residents into dire straits. The other two are the faltering Chinook salmon stocks (the Southern Residents’ preferred food) and the presence of toxins in the sound.

Currently at 78 whales, four deaths in 2014 brought the Southern Resident population, distributed between three familial pods, to a 30-year low. Perhaps even more worrisome, until the baby born in late December, the J, K and L pods had had only one birth since 2012. That calf vanished not a month later. Then, a pregnant female was found dead in early December. Hopefully, the recent newborn breaks from the statistics. 

In the 42-page report Orca Relief submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in December 2014, the organization outlined the effects of noise disturbance on the whales. Numerous outside studies have observed increased stress and decreased hunting abilities. The report proposed placing further restrictions on boats within the proposed zone to help alleviate these effects.

NMFS says they will review Orca Relief’s proposal in early January. Should, after internal discussion, NMFS want to move the proposal forward, they would then begin a formal public process to allow for all stakeholders to share their views.

A public process, however, would not guarantee the establishment of the zone. In fact, NMFS already held a series of public workshops to discuss a similar proposal in 2009 and 2010. That initiative would have prohibited any boat access to the area, similar to a marine protected area. After receiving significant pushback from whale-watching and fishing groups, NMFS dropped the plan in 2011.

Now Orca Relief is aiming for a more nuanced approach, allowing for the activities that present less of an immediate threat to the whales (such as fishing or kayaking), while forbidding the active pursuit of whales by commercial or private whale watchers.

This time around, Orca Relief has already begun their efforts to drum up more support on the whales' behalf, with the hopes that they will be able to show up with a stronger voice should the public process begin. The organization held meetings throughout Puget Sound in December in which they outlined their intentions to local audiences.

Not all of those thinking about future of these whales believe Orca Relief’s plan to be a good one. Michael Harris, who says he has been an orca conservationist for more than a decade, thinks that it detracts from the real problem at hand: The orca whales are starving, because they just don’t have enough food. Harris says the only way the Southern Residents can recover is if whale advocates focus their efforts on Chinook habitat recovery in order to recoup their stocks.

“I think that every single bit of real estate that can be, should be devoted to communicating the urgency of salmon restoration,” Harris says. Pushing for a protected zone, he claims, “takes away from this.”

Still, Harris looks at this issue from an additional perspective: He is the executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), an organization of 32 whale watching outfits. Salmon aside, Orca Relief’s proposal could constrict the industry he represents, which accounts for a large portion of San Juan Island’s economy.

“Whale watching is a huge draw to the islands,” Barbara Marrett, communications director for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, says. “We figure we get about 750-800,000 visitors a year. One out of every eight jobs here is dependent on visitors.”

Harris says points out that all of the PWWA companies strictly adhere to the regulations in place, not getting closer than 200 yards from the whales – or 400 yards, if they are in the whales' path of travel. He also claims that PWWA operators already respect a current ¼-mile voluntary “no-go zone” off San Juan Island’s west coast.

Officer Taylor Kimball, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), confirms that most infractions come from people who aren’t aware of the regulations. Usually, Kimball says, WDFW officials just issue warnings, which they use as an opportunity to educate boaters, and reserve official citations (which carry penalties up to $1025) for blatant and egregious violations. Still, the Department of Fish and Wildlife issued nine citations in 2014 — two of which were to commercial boats. (NOAA can also issue citations under federal jurisdiction, which are not included in that number.)

Harris believes that whale watching ultimately works towards the orcas' benefit. “We’re taking roughly half a million people every year [to see the killer whales],” he says. “And they’re getting off that boat and saying ‘What can we do to help.’”

To Orca Relief, what to do to help the whales is not a matter of either-or. “Everyone agrees that we need more salmon, but we’ve been working on that for decades,” says Bruce Stedmen, Orca Relief’s executive director. Meanwhile, the Southern Resident population is crashing — and fast. “A whale protection zone can be done relatively easily, relatively inexpensively and we can start now.”

At this point, the impact Orca Relief’s proposed protection zone would have is largely impossible to know — and so the matter is still up for debate. One thing, however, is for sure. The Southern Resident killer whales are on the decline. If they disappear completely, it won’t be to anyone’s benefit.

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