Reality Check: Whale Watching in 2022 | guest column

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By Erin Gless, Executive Director, Pacific Whale Watch Association

In July, members of all three Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) pods visited the Salish Sea, great news for whale lovers. Unfortunately, it has also sparked a new wave of misinformation about professional whale watching. In short, the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) is an organization dedicated to education, conservation and responsible wildlife viewing, supported by a small staff and primarily run by volunteers. Our members, made up mostly of family businesses in communities like the San Juan Islands, appreciate this opportunity to set the record straight.

MYTH: Professional whale watchers constantly watch southern residents

Commercial viewing of SRKW is extremely restricted and has been for some time. As of June 2019, an agreement in Canada prohibits professional whale watchers from viewing the SRKW from any distance in most BC waters. In the United States, under the Washington Commercial Whale Watching License program, professional whale watchers are not permitted to approach within 1/2 nautical mile (1,013 yards) of SRKW, except in July, August and September in very limited circumstances. In fact, for all of 2021, PWWA vessels saw SRKW within 1/2 nautical mile for less than 60 total hours. Per licensing rules, PWWA vessels have not seen SRKW within ½ nm since September 2021.

MYTH: Whale-watching boats are the biggest threat to southern residents

The greatest threat to SRKWs in the Salish Sea is the decline in size and quantity of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon. In these same waters, the growing populations of Bigg’s killer whales and mammal-eating humpback whales demonstrate that animals with adequate food can thrive in this environment.

For those focusing on boats, while research shows that underwater noise can interfere with SRKW foraging, a 2017 acoustic study commissioned by the Port of Vancouver found that only 0.6% of the its submarine in our area is generated by professional whale watching vessels. Ferries (66.9%), tankers and transport vessels (14.1%) and tugboats (11.7%) generate most of the region’s underwater noise. Yet current restrictions on viewing SRKW only apply to whale-watching vessels. Recreational vessels can see SRKW at any time from 300 meters in Washington and 400 meters in Canada. Commercial ships and ferries are exempt from all distance regulations.

MYTH: Whale watching harms whales

Watching the whales at slow speeds and from appropriate distances, our trained naturalists educate guests while observing undisturbed behaviors like feeding, mating, playing and resting. The whales we see most often here, such as humpback whales and mammal-hunting Bigg’s killer whales, have thriving and rapidly increasing populations.

There is growing evidence that PWWA vessels can benefit local whales. Our operators regularly carry out “sentinel actions”, contacting private boaters, ferries, transport vessels, etc. when the whales are nearby. In 2021, the PWWA documented 753 ship-related sentinel actions, successfully slowing or diverting other ships in 70% of encounters. PWWA operators can make a difference by simply modeling appropriate behavior. In 2021, the Orca Behavior Institute observed that the number of dangerous boating incidents around whales increased from 6.60 per hour to 2.65 per hour when professional whale watching boats were present.

For more than a decade, regulators, activists and some environmental groups have taken the easy route of targeting commercial whale watching, but that hasn’t helped Southern residents. Like all who are fortunate enough to call this area home, the PWWA cares deeply about the welfare of the whales in the Salish Sea.

It’s time to move on and work together to find solutions that will really make a difference for whales.

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