New federal rules went into effect in May, prohibiting all types of boats, including motor boats, sail boats and kayaks, from approaching any killer whale closer than 200 yards, and from intercepting an orca or positioning in its path.
The rules aim to reduce vessel disturbance to the Southern residents added to the Endangered Species list in late 2005.
While it may be too early to tell how this affects the health and behavior of the orcas, it’s been in effect long enough to see how boaters and researchers are reacting to the new law.
According to Kari Koski, coordinator of the Whale Museum’s Soundwatch Boater Education Program, killer whales at this time of year are “milling,” which means they are spread out and surfacing in varying directions while remaining in the same area.
“In a way, fisherman are also doing their own ‘milling’ as they fish and its common for boats to get caught in the path of orcas unintentionally, the whales are unpredictable,” Koski said. “We’re not exempt sometimes we [the Soundwatch boat] get caught in their paths too.”
Soundwatch’s mission is to educate people about rules and regulations, and about natural history. They do not enforce laws, but compile data and show the trends of boating in particular areas.
If the same boat repeatedly breaks the law or shows flagrant disregard, Soundwatch will notify enforcement agencies, which has not occurred this summer.
Koski said most of the boats Soundwatch has witnessed breaking the 200 yard rule are recreational boats, or commercial or private fishing boats on their way to fishing grounds because they are not aware that whales are in the area.
She also realizes some of the tricky areas of the rules for non-motorized boats, like kayaks, which can’t outrun an orca and therefore can get into situations where they are less than 100 yards away.
Mark Lewis, co-founder of Sea Quest Expeditions, said that unlike motorized vessels, which he would like to see banned from San Juan Island’s west side, his kayak guides are not obtrusive to the whales.
“They pretty much ignore us as if we were a piece of drift wood,” Lewis said of his experiences in 30 years of kayaking. “We’re silent and slow and poke along.”
Koski said kayakers don’t have a huge impact and that whale watching boats generally follow the rules.
“Commercial whale watching boats have signed up to follow regulations,” said Jenny Atkinson, director of the Whale Museum. “Private boat owners may not even know the regulations, our education efforts are focused on private boats.”
State keeping watch
Soundwatch is not alone in their efforts on the water. They coordinate with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration.
Fish and Wildlife’s Sgt. Russell Mullins said their boats are on call five days a week, and two to three days a week are dedicated to enforcing laws pertaining to killer whales. They spend most of their time in San Juan County.
“We’ve seen a difference in all the boats, especially the commercial whale watching industry,” Mullins said. “It’s the kind of thing where 5 percent mess it up for everyone else. By and large people are following the rules.”
In fact, Mullins finds whale watching boats to even be helpful. He tells boaters to slow down and be careful if they see whale watching boats, which may indicate killer whales are in the area.
WDFW has issued only warnings this summer, no actual tickets. Warnings are for non-repeat offenders that accidentally get too close to the whales.
Mullins estimates around 20 tickets were written in the last three years.
Fish and Wildlife is strict about enforcing the 100 yard law, because it has been in effect since 2007, and more lenient if someone is under 200 yards, as it is a new ruling.
“Outreach and education is a big part of the job, we want to educate,” he said.
Mullins said just their mere presence helps enforce the law, like having a patrol car on the highway. The agency’s presence on the water is down, however, because of funding issues.
Food supply matters most
For Ken Balcomb, director of the center for Whale Research, the increased distance is nonsensical.
“The concept of 200 yards is simple minded,” Balcomb said. “It’s like having to go 24.5 miles per hour. The concept is good, be polite to whales and that has been my motto for 35 years.”
In 1976, Balcomb, as principal investigator under contract to the National Marine Fisheries Service, ascertained the size of the population of killer whales in the Greater Puget Sound environs of Washington. During that time, Balcomb counted boats that were in the orcas feeding area. Sometimes there would be 150 small boats and 75 large commercial boats. He recalls orcas swimming around or under the boats’ nets to get to their food.
“If there were fish, they were not deterred,” he said.
Balcomb has never seen propeller marks on the Southern resident whales in all his years of research.
“Orcas are very aware of vessels and know they’re there and don’t bump into them,” he said. “Just like how we don’t just walk into traffic. They can avoid anyone they want to.”
What can be problematic, is the combination of low caloric intake and a loss of energy avoiding boats.
For Balcomb, the health of the orcas is dependent on food. When the chinook salmon population is healthy, the orca population is healthy. So far this summer, Balcomb has observed the orcas as “looking fat and healthy.”
“The perceptions spread that boats are killing whales is totally false,” Balcomb said. “We’ve cut down trees, damned rivers and killed all the fish, we have to balance our future human pressures. It’s amazing that they have survived what they have. The main thing is food. They don’t come here to just look at people.”
Balcomb adds that whale watching boats have also done something for the orcas that people perhaps overlook; they connected people to orcas.
Still, Koski warns against getting too complacent with wild animals, even those that are adored.
“The resident orcas are wild animals and you need to have a healthy respect for them,” said Koski. “We have a long way to go as far as learning how to interact with wildlife in the water.”
Basically, this is just the beginning.