Opinion

Author of 'State of the Orca' responds to critics | Opinion

By Mark Anderson, chairman, Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance

The original publication of this status report has led to responses directly from the Whale Watch Operators, from their paid naturalists, and from others interested in our local orca population.

This response, written for online use, contains various links and supporting studies or authorities who would not have fit into the original, which was restricted to 500 words.

While they have long demonstrated that the Whale Watch Operators will violently attack any new changes, the target audience of this status report was those islanders who are not being paid to chase whales, and therefore have no financial interest in the question of boat contribution to orca mortality.

These are the people who turned out in the largest petition signing in county history, demanding as early as 1997 that commercial businesses stop chasing our local whales. While those financially involved can continue to try to use their own ignorance of the science behind the new federal guidelines, we think the general population of San Juan County needs and deserves to know the current status of the local whales.

We also hope that the proposal at the end of this report provides a win-win solution that will both reduce whale deaths, and continue to allow whale watching profits.

To further set the proper scientific tone for this report, we will mention that it is being written at a time when there are now over 50 scientific papers on boat-whale interactions involving resident orca, by scientists from five or more countries, all of them showing negative effects.

This is written in the wake of a Puget Sound Partnership gathering of all whale biologists from the northwest, now several years ago, during which we agreed as a group that our whales were dying of starvation. (For a bibliography of many of these papers, please visit www.orcarelief.org).

This report further comes after much of the above science was re-checked by research done by the National Marine Fisheries Service (www.nmfs.org ) whose results were delivered directly to hearing participants during a multi-year process of rulefinding, in Anacortes, Seattle and Friday Harbor. As an example, Dr. Lynne Barre, NMFS’ lead scientist in this process, specifically confirmed the ability of motorized boats to blind orca sonar at 100 percent levels even at the distance of 200 meters.

In other words, we have now crossed a line of sorts: the science is done and re-done, the federal government has concluded the first phase of its rule-making process and issued new regulations, and the time for questioning any and all science is over.

For those making money on whale chasing, this is going to be a difficult situation: every peer-reviewed article on the subject shows contribution to starvation by boat interactions, and the federal government agrees, and has strengthened their rules as a result. (For those wishing a video review of this issue, we strongly recommend the recent investigative report done by Channel 13 in Seattle).

Below, I have interleaved additional supporting comments and links to help those interested in learning more about the cause of orca deaths.  (For those just interested in arguing loudly because making money is involved, your position has now been fully exposed).

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. (As noted above, virtually all northwest biologists studying whales came to this agreement at a meeting in Friday Harbor Labs several years ago.)

— No one can deny that chinook salmon counts matter most, and that the presence of motorized whale watch boats hastens that starvation. (Low chinook count alone does not correlate with increased whale deaths; but this plus boat presence correlates strongly, according to studies by Von Blaricom, Carlos Alvarez, and many other authors. Every study done on orca energetics and sonar confirms this, including those by Kriete, Bain, NMFS.)  It is as though low chinook count sets the stage for starvation, but boat presence, by increasing the need for fish per pound per day, while decreasing the whales’ hunting efficiency — blinding their sonar — creates the “perfect storm” as a path to starvation.

— No one can deny that these boats temporarily “blind” orca sonar, used for hunting, even at now-legal distances of up to 200m. away. (See above.)

— No one can deny that the presence of these boats simultaneously increases their need for food. (As Kriete and others have found, boat presence increases whale metabolic rate, increases swim path distance, and increases dive times. It also appears that the pods scatter widely in the presence of boats, vs. natural swim patterns; this is effective in avoiding or dividing whale watch fleets, but likely reduces effectiveness of salmon hunting.)

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. (A quick review of statements issued by these organizations upon the latest NMFS rulefinding supports this concurrence of views.)

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. (See all, above.)

Futhermore: 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 (6 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 headcount 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.

— In response to the population figures cited in a recent letter from the Operators Association:

Author Monika Wieland seems not fully aware of the population dynamics of local orca. There has always been a differential mortality rate among the orca, with a statistical assumption that half of all calves will die in their first 6-12 months.

The death rate of prime-age whales, prior to the commercial whale watch industry (pre-1985 or so) is close to zero. So what we are concerned about is not absolute deaths, but a change in these death rates, from how they occur normally, and how they occur during one of our population crashes.

Normally, we lose half the calves, and almost none of the prime-age animals, which do all the breeding.

Because it is during crashes that this is most prevalent, one should not look for mortality effects during non-crash periods. We lost about 17 percent of our whales from 1997 – 2001.

Even so, her figures, when properly examined for a change in the rates of mortality, are alarming: losing 25 calves since 1998 is not alarming, historically; but losing 20 prime-age animals can be devastating to the population, and provides the explanation of the “hollowing out” of the demographic curve referred to here.  Those adults ought to have survived.

Recently, K-pod had no breeding males; now all the pods seem to be only producing females.

This statement was in error, and Wieland properly points it out. It was the result my misunderstanding of a personal communication with Dr. Sam Wasser last week; Sam is co-author of a just-published paper with Michael Ford on inbreeding in our local whales.

I have since contacted Sam, and the correction is that the gender problem is very real, but in reverse: the pods continue to produce almost all males. Wasser, referencing the same data cited by Wieland, believes that the male predominance is now so strong as to threaten future recruitment in K and L pods.  Or, in his words, “there seems little question that K and L will probably go extinct pretty soon” as a result of this problem.

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 rulemaking 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.

It remains our hope that, instead of further argument, the Whale Watch Operators, or perhaps federal regulators, will see the benefits to all of a properly-designed No Go zone.

Whale harassment happens in a pyramid, beginning with paid spotters and a radio and Internet communications network that virtually guarantees no free time for the whales. Once the commercial fleet is on them, all day every day of the season, private boaters see the fleet and join in. Citing subsequent data on private boater numbers and behaviors conveniently misses the point: almost all private boaters would be oblivious to the whales’ presence without the commercial fleet.

By eliminating commercial operators from a west side No Go zone, the whales would be able to feed (and perhaps even rest, which they used to do daily) more effectively. The point is to reduce their starvation rate, as soon as possible.  Whale watch operators could continue to make their profits per seat, and the whales might be there a few generations from now.

The idea that whale watch operators cannot bear to share the Puget Sound with the whales, in a way that actually allows the whales to avoid starving, is disturbing; we hope it is not the case.

We really think that this proposal provides an opportunity for the Whale Watch Operators’ Association to take a leadership position, look good to the public who love these whales, and contribute directly to their health and reduced mortality, even as they continue to make money.

We encourage the whole island community to support this proposal as a win / win solution that will allow their grandchildren to also enjoy the presence and benefits of our resident orca.

 

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