To help save orcas, pause whale watching

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Back then, we changed things. In 1976, Washington State sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Fisheries Administration to stop Sea World catches. By then, 48 southern resident killer whales had been abducted or died during the attempts.

With the cessation of captures, the population fell from 70 individuals in 1974 to 98 in 1995. Since then, it has declined at an average rate of one individual per year. Today, he has only 74, including two new calves.


Read another perspective: Whale watching doesn’t kill orcas – a lack of salmon is


Are we going to intervene to save the inhabitants of the south again? It’s not too late, but it will be soon. We need your help to give whales the space they need.

Almost everyone agrees that the main causes of the current decline are lack of prey (mainly Chinook salmon), exposure to contaminants and, again, harassment, this time by noise and disturbance ships. The prey and contaminant issues are significant and warrant strong action, but will likely take decades to remediate. On the issue of harassment, however, there is a relatively simple solution.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act prohibit this type of abuse. The first defines harassment as including any act of pursuit that has the potential to disrupt the behavioral patterns of marine mammals (including feeding, nursing, breeding and migration). A recent group of scientists convened by the Washington State Academy of Sciences (WAS) reviewed and confirmed the extensive evidence that whale watching does just that.

A National Research Council landmark review explained that noise can cause marine mammals to change their behavior (e.g. reduce their foraging), resulting in poor health or body condition, reduced reproduction and survival, population decline and – if the decline is not reversed – population extinction.

Whale-watching companies claim that they do no harm to whales, that they provide a protective “sentry” and, finally, that southern resident whale-watching is essential to their business. The WAS scientific group refuted claims that the ships do not harm whales and noted that there was no scientific evidence to support the “sentinel” claim.

And a recent economic review of whale watching challenged the claim that southern residents are essential to the industry. Over the past 10 years in which the whale population has declined, the study found, the number of whale-watching boats more than doubled, while industry revenues nearly tripled. With less chance of seeing southern residents, the industry has built a thriving business in sighting other species such as humpback whales, Bigg’s killer whales (passengers) and gray whales. Southern residents represent only 10% of the industry’s listening opportunities, so they are not essential to the economic viability of the industry.

In 2018, Governor Jay Inslee’s Task Force on the Recovery of Southern Resident Orcas recommended 49 actions to recover southern residents, including a suspension of surveillance of southern residents by all boaters and a licensing program for commercial whale watching operators. The moratorium was not supported by the legislature, but the licensing system was enacted in 2019.

The law allows the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to set rules on how many boats can be around southern residents, as well as the times, seasons and areas in which they can operate. The rules, which must be in place by January 1, 2021, must “reduce daily and cumulative impacts on southern resident killer whales and take into account the economic viability of license holders.”

The ministry offered two options for the rules. Both allow continuous whale watching, but mainly differ in the seasons in which whale watching can take place. Option A does not allow whale watching on southern residents from October to June, and limited whale watching from July to September. Option B expands the whale watching seasons to include weekends from May to June and October to November. Public comments are being accepted on the proposed rules until December 5.

Of the two, Option A is the better because the seasonal closure gives orcas more time and space to feed undisturbed. Option B is much worse. Choosing the days of the week when orcas will be protected is like deciding to wear a mask for five days instead of seven. It’s better than not wearing a mask at all, but it’s still a gamble high risk.

None of these options gives whales the preventative protection they need over the next critical years. Any option that allows continued intentional disruption of these struggling pods is unwarranted and unwise, especially when there is no economic need to do so.

In its approach to rule-making, the Department of Fish and Wildlife should apply the best available science to protect the population, in the same way it manages any other “low stock” species. When the rockfish ran out, the department closed all of Puget Sound to fishing for rockfish until the species recovered. A year-round closure on viewing by southern residents is well supported by science, economics, and people’s needs.

A year-round closure is also consistent with Canadian management measures. In 2020, Canada established a 400-yard approach limit for all vessels, temporary seasonal sanctuaries, seasonal fishing closures by area and slow zones for large vessels.

Despite its federal responsibilities in managing the recovery of this population, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has largely failed to assert its authority and facilitate recovery. By intervening in the breach, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has assumed management authority and should be encouraged to make decisions consistent with our priorities.

You can help. Go to the Department of Fish and Wildlife website and submit your comments by December 5th. Attend the Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting and tell them that you do not support whale watching on ships on this population until it is recovered. Then write to your state legislators and tell them the same. You will give your children, grandchildren and future generations a better chance to experience the beauty and wonders of these remarkable animals. We imagine a brighter future when southern residents are fully recovered, thriving in healthy and bountiful seas. But this day will not come without your support. Will you help? A clear and overwhelming public signal to protect orcas is our last best hope.

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