Southern resident orcas took a heavy hit last year, losing seven members, including matriarch J-2, Granny. In November, Orca Relief Citizens Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity and Project Sea Wolf filed a petition with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration creating a whale protection zone along the western and southern sides of San Juan Island.
“In order for something like this to work, there needs to be community support,” said Lynn Barre, chief of NOAA’s Seattle branch. On Jan. 13, NOAA announced a public comment period on the petition, lasting 90 days from Jan. 13.
According to Barre, community support is a major factor NOAA must look at when designing and reviewing proposals such as a protection zone. NOAA received opposition to a similar proposal in 2009, in part because commenters believed the economic analysis for the no-go-zone proposal was incomplete. Since then, NOAA has not been sitting idly by. Barre said they have been looking at current research, and are waiting for the results of studies on sound levels regarding what whales are hearing, and how that impacts them. They are also reexamining the economic analysis of a proposed protection zone.
In 2013, NOAA held a workshop reviewing regulations to see if additional studies were needed.
The zone differs in size from NOAA’s original proposal from 2009, amounting to an area three-fourths of a mile wide and includes a fourth-of-a-mile-wide buffer, stretching from Cattle Point to Mitchell Point. A buffer would make enforcement easier because it would be obvious when boaters are in the zone, according to Mark Anderson, founder of Orca Relief.
The petition allows for exemptions for fishing vessels, and other boats traveling through the area, although it does require these vessels travel slowly, and for no-wake signs to be put in place. Kayaks and non-motoring sailboats, Anderson said, are fine.
Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said NOAA is legally required to respond promptly, usually within a year, and they can either accept or reject the proposal.
“If they make a decision that is contrary to the science, it could be challenged,” Sakashita said.
According to NOAA’s website, there are at least three major threats to the Southern residents; contaminants such as PCBs, lack of food and increasing noise and vessel traffic; “Noise and overcrowding from boat traffic, as well as a scarce supply of their preferred food, salmon, pose serious threats to this endangered population. We need to focus efforts and make critical investments within NOAA… to engage vital partners to stabilize and prevent the Southern resident killer whales extinction. Past research has shown that … the most important threats facing the whales … cannot be addressed without a long-term commitment. Recovery of threatened salmon, for example, is a monumental task in itself and is expected to take many years.”
The petition utilizes similar data from NOAA’s own research.
“There is zero doubt in science that vessels impact whales, harmfully,” said Anderson.
Jenny Atkinson, director of The Whale Museum, does not question the science either.
“The science and reasoning behind the petition are sound,” said Atkinson. However, she added, the problems are complex and she is not sure the petition addresses the whole issue. Atkinson also noted that The Whale Museum has proposed a special management area along the west side.
According to Anderson, orcas have evolved to have one of the best acoustic apparatus in the world. In fact, the Navy has been trying to replicate it for decades. The dolphin family, of which orcas are a member, have been able to differentiate, not just between objects of different shapes, but between solid and hollow objects, and objects with another object inside it.
“They not only see you, but into you. They can see your heart beat,” he said, adding that they essentially see with their ears, and the presence of motorized vehicles blinds them, making it difficult for them to find food.
“Even at the legal 200-yard distance, one boat can blind a whale,” said Anderson. According to data collected by NOAA, researchers have estimated potential auditory masking from vessels as far away as 400 yards.
“Studies have shown the speed of the vessel has the biggest impact,” said Jeff Friedman, of Maya’s Legacy, and U.S. president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.
He said that’s why the PWWA has voluntarily slowed down, especially along the west side — an area Southern residents have been known to utilize to fish. Friedman emphasizes this is not due to any regulation, but something that the commercial whalers have volunteered to do. Friedman does not support the petition, in part he said, “Salmon are in crises, and this does nothing to address that.”
Lack of food:
With last year being one of the lowest Chinook runs, it’s clear that a lack of food is one of the biggest threats the whales are currently facing. Chinook is one of the Southern residents’ primary food sources. (See The Journal’s “Where have all the salmon gone?” published on July 27, 2016.)
“We must spend 100 percent of our energy getting fish into the mouths of these whales,” Deborah Giles, research director and projects manager for the Center for Whale research previously told The Journal.
Friedman agrees, saying that NOAA has not done enough for salmon recovery and needs to focus its efforts on salmon recovery.
“There is public support now for the removal of the snake river dam,” said Friedman.
Petitioners don’t disagree, but they believe a whale protection zone along the west side would put salmon into the whale’s mouth now by allowing them to forage in peace.
“A protection zone is vital to give these whales adequate uninterrupted space to feed and forage and mate during the critical summer months,” said co-petitioner Michael Kundu, director of Sea-Wolf Project, a nonprofit.
Anderson stated the petitioners want to work with the whale watch industry,
“Imagine if we saved these whales. They could be heroes,” said Anderson.
The west side, where the protection zone would be located, is where the fish are, said Anderson.
“Ask any fisherman, they will tell you,” he said.
Anderson continued that the territory the Southern residents use may be large, but the zone only takes up maybe one percent.
“This is their kitchen, they may have plenty of bedrooms, but this is their kitchen,” said Anderson.
With the lack of salmon, according to Giles, they are utilizing that kitchen less and less, simply because there aren’t the fish there once were.
“If we were to begin our studies today, we would think transients were the residents, and the residents were just visiting,” she told the Journal this summer.
With the loss of seven animals in one year, it is clear the Southern residents are in trouble.
“Every single one of these animals whether you can see it or not are in trouble, endangered. They need food and quieter, cleaner water, “ Atkinson said. “It’s so easy for us to forget we are playing in their living room. We need to be whale wise in every way.”