As a scientist, whale advocate and San Juan County resident, I feel compelled to correct and clarify some information in the recent guest column about Southern residents and vessels.
The science shows no correlation between vessel volume and distance from a whale; instead, vessel speed is most important. A private vessel or commercial freighter cruising 1,000 yards away is far louder than a whale-watch boat moving slowly at 200 yards. The slow-go zone moving forward under current legislation will benefit the whales.
Studies that model impacts of vessel noise on the whales’ ability to hunt show the majority of potential influence is from shipping traffic, not whale-watching. The other study referenced, regarding vessel exhaust “poisoning” the whales, concluded that “The Southern residents are currently experiencing negligible exposure to the PAHs measured.”
Regarding the Pacific Whale Watch Association, enforcement officers acknowledge PWWA vessels model best behavior to recreational boaters, preventing vessel infractions daily. Multiple times in 2018 PWWA reports led to the termination of active military testing in the presence of whales.
Nine companies operate out of San Juan County, a third of PWWA membership; hardly “only a handful.” While recently Southern residents have been encountered on 15 percent of PWWA trips (as the whales go elsewhere in response to regional salmon stocks crashing), every year is different. Historically, Southern residents made up 90 percent of their trips, and hopes are, they will again. The PWWA is the only commercial enterprise I know of that voluntarily sacrifices for the whales, going beyond what’s regulated. If only all the interest groups on the Orca Task Force would do the same. I applaud the PWWA for promoting the salmon issue; it is the furthest thing from a “distraction.”
In no way have I or other researchers been “paid off” by the PWWA. I defend them as important allies in the fight to save the Southern residents, as I have seen firsthand their passion, dedication to adaptive management, conservation efforts and quality education. Continuing to vilify and spread false information about the PWWA does a disservice not only to our community but to the whales themselves.