The local orca population is at a 30-year low, so a state advisory panel, aiming to protect the endangered species, is taking drastic measures.
On Nov. 6, the task force advising Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee recommended suspending viewing the Southern residents by all boats in the state’s inland waters for the next 3 to 5 years.
The suspension would only apply to Southern resident killer whales, not any other marine wildlife.
The suggestion is one of almost three dozen recommendations made by the governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force that Inslee could enact through executive order or send to the state Legislature for funding or approval.
If the suspension suggestion is approved, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife would define “whale watching,” including whether it applies to both boats and kayaks, and the effects of the suspension would be reviewed after its completion to see whether it should continue.
The population struggles to survive due to water pollution, boat noise that hinders their ability to find food and communicate and the lack of their main food source Chinook salmon.
Task force member Joe Gaydos, who is also a SeaDoc Society director on Orcas Island, said the whales are disturbed by both the boats’ noise as well as their mere presence.
“By decreasing noise, we can make more scarce salmon available to find,” he said. “Maybe there’s only 100 salmon out there, but if things are quiet, maybe [the orcas] can find 75 of them. If it’s noisy, maybe they can find 25.”
Boat watch suspension
The task force’s suggested suspension replaces a previous recommendation to limit boat noise on the west side of San Juan Island, where orcas typically feed.
The task force could not agree on whether to mandate lower vessel speeds in the area or completely prohibit boats. They also struggled to decide whom the regulations would apply to and where it should be applied.
Concerns, according to the meeting notes, included the difficulty boaters may have differentiating transient orcas from Southern residents; the ineffectiveness of having a “no-go” zone when orcas aren’t present; and the need for the zone to equitably target boaters.
Members agreed to create a more encompassing suggestion, according to San Juan County Councilman and task force member Jamie Stephens. He said the recommendation now completely suspends all boaters, including commercial, recreational and fishing, in all of the local waters.
“Personally, I didn’t like only targeting the west side of San Juan,” Stephens told the Journal. “The same issues apply to all the waters around here.”
Last summer, state fish and wildlife managers called for a voluntary “no-go” zone along San Juan’s west side, but there are no laws to prevent vessels in the area. There are, however, federal regulations that mandate vessel operators both be at least 200 yards from any killer whale and not to place vessels in the path of whales within 400 yards.
Jeff Friedman is the president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and also a member of the task force. He said the 32 whale watch businesses that comprise the PWWA exceed current laws to protect orcas by voluntarily traveling 7 knots or slower within 1 kilometer of any whale, which lowers vessel noise. That’s why he pushed for a mandated “slow zone” for all boaters around the orcas, which he said is part of the recommendations to the governor.
Today, said Friedman, tours view other whales, like transients and humpbacks, more than Southern residents. However, he was more concerned about the adverse effects on the orcas, than the whale watch industry if tours could no longer view the Southern residents. He explained that whale watch boats following federal whale regulations and best practices encourage recreational boaters to follow suit and added that the suspension suggestion came “at the 11th hour.”
“It’s unfortunate that a new idea got presented and voted on without the same vetting process and input from science that the other recommendations went through,” he told the Journal.
The majority of the 36 task force recommendations fall under the goal to increase Chinook salmon.
One suggestion calls to spill more water over Columbia River dams to help juvenile Chinook safely make it through the river to the Pacific Ocean, allowing more adults to return to the river and spawn in the future.
Previous task force drafts included examining the possibility of removing the four lower Snake River Dams in southeast Washington, but Stephens said this suggestion was moved to be reviewed in 2019 instead.
Removing the dams, said Gaydos, would add more salmon, but also affect crop irrigation and commodities transported by barge in eastern Washington.
“People who live in eastern Washington have concerns beyond the orca,” he said. “You’re balancing multiple concerns that people in different parts of the state have.”
Ken Balcomb has been a staunch supporter of removing those dams. As founder of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan, Balcomb has produced the official count of the Southern resident population since 1976.
Other task force recommendations include limiting whale watching by boat and kayak through a permit system; requiring all recreational boaters to be certified in safety regulations and best practices around whales; and changing legislation to protect Chinook and the forage fish they eat.
The endangered Southern resident population has reached 74 whales. The species’ most recent deaths include J50, a sick adolescent orca who went missing and was presumed to be dead last September; a calf born last July to J35, who carried her dead young for 17 days; and 23-year-old L92, who was also presumed dead last June.
For Gaydos, a temporary suspension to view the Southern residents by boat may have long-term effects.
“This is not a palatable suggestion for those who like to go out and watch whales,” said Gaydos. “I love to go out and see Southern residents too, [but] I’m happy to give that up for a few years to make sure they are going to be around here for a long time.”