Push for ‘Whale Protection Zone’ seeks to limit stress on endangered orcas

Bruce Stedman

In the wake of the death of J32, a pregnant female of the Southern Resident orca whales, a call to action resurfaced last week for a “No-Go” whale protection zone off the westside of San Juan Island.

Orca Relief Citizens Alliance is urging the National Marine Fisheries Service to adopt its outline and begin the formal public process of establishing a no-go zone.

“This is only an immediate solution to a dire situation,” said Orca Relief Executive Director Bruce Stedman. “When salmon levels are so low, the whales are very stressed when searching for food. Pursuit from whale watching boats causes more stress.”

Declared endangered in 2005, the Southern resident population is at a 30-year low, with only 77 remaining whales. Orca Relief’s proposed no-go zone comes on the heels of the death of four orcas in 2014, including L-120, the population’s first calf in nearly two years.

In addition to lack of prey and pollution, disturbance by vessels is one of the three primary threats the beleaguered population faces in its struggle to survive, according to the Fisheries Service.

The boundaries of the suggested zone would extend south to either Eagle or Cattle points from the northern tip of Mitchell Point, and stretch three quarters of a mile offshore. It would be in effect April through October. Boats that need to transit through the area would be expected to adhere to no-wake rules, such as those coming in and out of Snug Harbor.

The main purpose of the protection zone, according to Stedman, would be to minimize noise and disturbance from vessels while whales are hunting for their primary food source, chinook salmon, which have become increasingly scarce. The particular noise being singled out by Orca Relief is that of commercial whale-watch boats.

At a Dec. 16 forum on the whale protection zone, organized at the Grange Hall by Orca Relief, the group’s founder, Mark Anderson, said while the protected area could negatively impact whale-watch businesses that if it could help with orca recovery it would be well worth the effort.

“If we turn this around you’ll be in business forever,” Anderson said in response to criticism from whale-watch industry advocates.

Stedman and Anderson also point out that the proposed zone is but a tiny fraction of the orcas entire critical habitat, only .5 percent. The entire critical habitat, as determined by the Fisheries Service after the orcas were designated endangered, is roughly 2,650 square miles of the inland waters of Washington state.

“What this looks like is a whale protection zone for J pod in July,” Pacific Whale Watch Association President Brian Goodremont said at the meeting. “I would hate to see our community divided over this again.”

In 2013, the whales were only seen on the westside 23 days of the year, Goodremont said.

NMFS proposed a similar no-go zone five years ago, extending half-a-mile offshore. Met by substantial opposition from whale-watch companies, kayakers, and others, the Fisheries Service abandoned that proposal in 2011 in favor of speed-limits, increased buffers and public education efforts. The agency was again met by opposition when it renewed discussion of a no-go zone the following year.

“We didn’t fully evaluate the economic impacts,” Lynne Barre, Fisheries Service’s branch chief, said of the reason for shelving its most recent proposal.

If adopted under Orca Relief guidelines, commercial fishing boats would be allowed to operate and continue to fish the protection zone under the presumption that those types of vessels have less effect on orca recovery.

According to Stedman, special provisions on how to operate in the zone would be worked out in the public process for vessels deemed to have “less of an impact.”

“Whale-watch boats follow all day long, whales just swim by fishing boats” he said.

Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, begs to differ.

“The no-go zone is an absurd waste of concern and a futile effort legally,” Balcomb said. “The whales will go where the chinook salmon are in abundance, and it is these fish that should receive our concern.”

According to Balcomb, a paradigm shift needs to occur in order for the orcas to survive. That shift begins by leaving salmon in the water until the population can recover. Instead of limiting whale-watch boats off the westside, he suggests that taking down dams and limiting fishing permits are logical first steps.

As for noise, Balcomb said even commercial container ships and tankers don’t pose much of a threat to the orcas. Tankers and container ships operate at about 195 decibels, while the average whale-watch boat operates at about 165 decibels. This 30 decibel difference, Balcomb said, means whale-watch boats emit “one one-thousandth” of the noise that commercial ships do.

“I have routinely seen southern resident killer whales within 10 yards of big ships, and they pay these ships no attention,” he said.

Some sounds do have an impact on orca behavior, Balcomb notes, such as the sonar used by U.S. and Canadian naval ships during training drills, and the blasts and explosions that accompany coastal ammunition exercises.

Barre said NMFS has received Orca Relief’s protection zone proposal, but would not address it until after the new year.