New rules would drastically reduce whale watching around endangered southern resident orcas

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When mother orca Tahlequah lost her calf in 2018 and carried her body for 17 days, she moved people around the world who were touched by her loss. Now she has a new calf, a healthy male, born September 4.

And a new question arises in the region about how Washington State might act to protect Tahlequah and give her and other endangered J, K, and L group orcas more space and calmer water to help them find fish.

The state’s new proposed whale watching regulations — available for public comment through Nov. 13 — would create the state’s first-ever whale watching industry licensing program. In recent years it has been a growing business, despite the decline of the state’s most famous orcas, the southern residents, who frequent Puget Sound. There are only 74 left.

As scientists struggle to understand why the southern residents, listed as endangered in 2005, are in decline, three main threats have emerged. Pollution, lack of adequate chinook salmon, a favorite food of killer whales, and inconvenience and noise from ships and boats.

The three threats interact: noise and disturbance make hunting more difficult for killer whales, as killer whales hunt using sound. And when they don’t eat enough, they burn their fat, releasing the toxic substances stored there into their bloodstream.

An orca needs 18 to 25 salmon per day depending on the size and activity of the orca. Nursing is the most energetically expensive task for orcas – and right now there are two nursing mothers in the J pod.

In a rare photo of orca mother Tahlequah taken by drone just after the birth of her calf, the tender and vital bond between the two is apparent.

The photos of the two new J pod mothers, J35, or Tahlequah, and J41, were taken during a health survey by scientists Holly Fearnbach, director of marine mammal research for SR3, and John Durban, scientist principal at Southall Environmental Associates.

“I think our photos are a beautiful and graphic illustration of the vulnerabilities and hope associated with these new calves,” Fearnbach said in an email. “They deserve and need protections, just like their mothers and family members who now have another mouth to feed.”

Whale-watching tour operators have long maintained that they act as sentinels on the water, their presence alerting other boaters to the location of whales. Tour operators also provide location information to scientists researching the whales they seek to study and document.

Some tour operators have deliberately decided not to take customers near southerners to give them space and quiet.

Science has repeatedly shown that disturbance from ships disrupts the feeding of whales. A report by the Washington State Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Underwater Acoustics and Disturbances in August 2020 found little evidence of an industry-claimed sentinel role. And it confirmed that noise and disturbance disrupt foraging opportunities.

Slowing down boats and decreasing the time around the whales, as well as increasing the distance from the whales, are considered the main ways to reduce noise levels.

An economic analysis prepared to inform the rule-making process found that in an average year, most commercial whale-watching ventures could manage the costs of new southern resident viewing rules. currently under study.

One reason is that tour operators are not financially dependent on viewing by southern residents and the industry, which brings in about $10 million a year to San Juan Island tour operators, has remained profitable despite the reduction viewing opportunities over the past 10 years. The whales shifted their main feeding grounds as Chinook runs, particularly to the Fraser River, declined. Today, southerners spend much less time in the San Juan Islands, which was once their summer home.

Tour operators are already seeing mostly more abundant species, including transient killer whales, or Bigg, killer whales, humpback whales and gray whales.

Bigg’s killer whales eat marine mammals, including seals, and have plenty to prey on. The killer whales resemble southern residents and their spectacular kills of marine mammals are a hit with tourists.

The state released draft regulations on Oct. 1 for initial public comment ahead of the official release of the draft rules on Oct. 21 for consideration under the public comment period through Nov. 13.

The draft regulations currently include:

  • Prohibition of motorized whale-watching tours within a quarter mile of shore on part of the west side of San Juan Island from Mitchell Point to Cattle Point, or within a half mile of the Lime Kiln State Park.
  • A limit to no more than three motorized commercial whale-watching tours that could observe a pod of Southern Resident orcas at a time.
  • Motorized tours would also be prohibited from observing southern residents with a calf under the age of one or a southern resident killer whale showing signs of illness or injury.

The technology exists today to find out how the whales are doing, without even approaching them. Drone photography has proven to be a good way to see which whales are pregnant or look thin.

“Our drone measurements can be used to identify whales in poor condition and alert whale watchers to give them space to find fish,” said Durban, who with Fearnbach surveys the three pods twice a year. in spring and autumn.

Other rules under consideration would require seasonal restrictions on whale watching.

Motorized whale-watching tours should stay 800 meters away from any southern resident killer whales between October 1 and June 30.

Limited visits would be allowed from July 1 to September 30. Visits by southern residents would be limited to two periods per day, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. An operator could take customers for one of these windows to see southern residents, but not both.

Comments on the proposed regulations will be collected during two virtual feedback sessions: October 7 (1:00 p.m.-2:15 p.m. PDT, register here) or October 8 (9:00 a.m.-10:15 a.m. PDT, register -you here). For more information on the rulemaking process and general information, visit the WDFW Commercial Whale Watching Rulemaking webpage.

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