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The 'State of the Orca' | Guest Column
The just completed rule-making process by the National Marine Fisheries Service has left San Juan Islanders in the current situation:
— No one can deny that our whales have been dying of starvation.
— No one can deny that Chinook salmon counts matter most, and that the presence of motorized whale watch boats hastens that starvation.
— No one can deny that these boats temporarily “blind” orca sonar, used for hunting, even at now-legal distances of up to 200 meters away.
— No one can deny that the presence of these boats simultaneously increases their need for food.
Perhaps most politically interesting, we now have virtually all non-whalewatch orgranizations on the same side on these issues, after years of argument and waiting for science to be done.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, the Whale Museum, the Friends of the San Juans, and Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance have all endorsed the new rules, and the reasons behind them; and federal, state and county government are enforcing them.
Yes, whale watch boats are directly responsible for the death of our local whales, and it is time for islanders to take this to heart.
Furthermore: motorized whale watching boats, following the orca all day every day in the season, even at legal distances, will continue to harm them.
Did this rule process help the whales at all?
If I took three videos of boats on the whales from our westside office before the rules, and now, I have no doubt no one could tell the difference. So, unfortunately, no. The rules remain unenforceable, and enforcement remains so rare (six visits last year by the state) as to be ineffective.
What Islanders Don’t Know
While the orca birth rate continues its robust rate, the current head count could mislead islanders into thinking the whale population is regaining health.
Rather, we have lost many prime-age breeding animals, creating a U-shaped population demographic and reducing the genetic health of the whole group. The whales appear to be on a deadly conveyor belt: the young survive, but, simply by getting bigger and needing more fish per day, they die of starvation.
Recently, K-pod had no breeding males; now all the pods seem to be only producing females.
And if anyone needed a real red flag indicating an increasing threat level, the first paper proving inbreeding among Southern Residents has just been published. The Northern resident whales never breed inside their own pods, and ours didn’t either — until now.
There is a solution available: finish the rule-making project by creating a No Go Zone only for motorized whale watch boats, along the west side of San Juan Island. Contrary to the original, this would not apply to kayakers, anglers, commercial fishermen, or private boaters.
It would give the whales a very small “buffet table” where they could eat in peace, while the whale watch companies could continue making money outside this zone.
Mark Anderson, chairman, Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance
San Juan Island