Restrictions on vessel traffic have helped keep more boaters farther from critically endangered southern-resident killer whales, while not harming the whale-watch industry, a new study has found.
Federal restrictions enacted in 2011 require whale-watch boats and other vessels to stay at least 200 yards away from orca whales. That’s a long way — two football-field lengths — and doubled the buffer. Yet whale-watch tourism continues to grow, the technical memorandum from NOAA found.
Lack of food — namely salmon in Puget Sound — as well as high levels of contaminants in their environment, and disturbance by vessel noise are the primary threats identified by the agency to the Puget Sound orcas’ survival.
The new vessel restrictions were intended to help reduce stress on the whales, which spend less time foraging and more time traveling when disturbed by vessel noise, researchers have found.
Vessel noise may also cause the J, K and L pods of southern-resident killer whales to spend more energy trying to communicate and echolocate in order to find food.
New regulations have increased the average distance kept by boaters from the whales, but the industry is booming.
About 400,000 people a year from more than 20 ports on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border head out to watch whales on commercial tour boats, more than ever, said Michael Harris, former executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.
Helping out has been the comeback of humpback whales, which have provided reliable thrills on the water, as well as the healthy population of transient killer whales, the Canadian, marine-mammal-eating orcas. Abundant food in the region’s booming seal population has kept their numbers fat and sightings reliable.
The southern residents meanwhile — the J, K and L pods that frequent Puget Sound — have been increasingly scarce in the past two seasons, perhaps because they are off hunting fish where it is more abundant.
According to the nonprofit Center for Whale Research and Orca Network, the southern residents were sighted in the San Juan Islands and Strait of Juan de Fuca area only 22 times from July to September this year, compared with 62 times in 2016. And they used to be seen on a near-daily basis from June through September.
Declines in Puget Sound salmon runs are a critical issue for the Puget Sound orcas, which eat only fish.
Down to only 76 animals, the southern residents’ population is at a 30-year low.
The study found the vessel restrictions are more effective with enforcement boats on the water, with fewer violations by recreational boaters in particular (as opposed to professional tours) when enforcement officers are present. In the coming legislative session, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said he will introduce legislation that provides about $500,000 to keep a dedicated enforcement boat and two Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers on the water five days a week in the north sound and San Juan Islands, during the prime spring and summer viewing season.
Now is the time when the whales will visit the central Puget Sound, chasing fall chum salmon runs, creating a rare thrill in an urban setting. While the southern resident killer whales depend primarily on chinook salmon in the summer, orcas will chase runs of chum all the way into central Puget Sound, starting in early October and spending fall and early winter months visiting the area.
The nonprofit Orca Network has created an online guide to shore-based whale-watching posts around the Sound, with 100 viewing locations.
Preserving the thrill of orca-whale sightings for future generations will depend on taking more steps now to also preserve — and rebuild — the southern residents’ population, Ranker said.
“We have to protect the orca whale from our stupidity,” said Ranker, who intends to also introduce bills in the coming session to reduce toxins in Puget Sound, combat oil spills and boost fish runs.
“Those are all long-term fixes,” Ranker said. “But the one thing that should happen right now is more enforcement on the water to ensure boaters keep their distance.”