Editorials

Banning orca-watching cruises would make big splash. That doesn’t make it good policy

Passengers on a boat touring through the San Juan Islands watch killer whales surface nearby. Watching southern resident orcas from a boat wouldn’t be allowed under a new state task force recommendation; current guidelines advise boats to stay at least 200 yards away.
Passengers on a boat touring through the San Juan Islands watch killer whales surface nearby. Watching southern resident orcas from a boat wouldn’t be allowed under a new state task force recommendation; current guidelines advise boats to stay at least 200 yards away. AP file photo, 2000

A noble effort to pull the Pacific Northwest’s iconic marine mammal from the brink of extinction gained momentum Friday with the release of a landmark report by the Southern Resident Orca Task Force.

Commissioned by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last March, the group worked against the clock in a serious game of numbers. Nearly 50 task force members issued 36 recommendations in pursuit of four overarching goals. They aim to increase the amount of Chinook salmon for the whales to eat; decrease vessel traffic and noise; reduce exposure to marine pollution; and marshal the money and political will to do all of the above.

All this work is being done in hopes of reversing a number that’s not nearly large enough: Only 74 members of these endangered orca pods remain. The animals’ fading fortunes, in contrast with the rebounding population of northern residents plying the waters around northern Vancouver Island and southeast Alaska, offer a damning portrait of an ecosystem in peril.

But well-meaning people determined to save the whales must not create scapegoats. That’s why legislators should be scrupulous next year when assessing the task force recommendations. In particular, they should be wary of a proposal to suspend all viewing of southern resident orcas from boats for three to five years.

This proposal — aka recommendation No. 28 — didn’t get a thorough vetting because it wasn’t introduced until the final task force meeting. It might do more harm than good, because whale-watch crews serve as lookouts for these stealthy creatures.

Orca researchers can’t do it alone; they need experienced eyes and ears in the field, from the Tacoma Narrows and its connecting inland passages to the wide open waters of the Salish Sea.

Yes, large marine vessels are disruptive, and the task force proposed sensible ideas to mitigate their impacts, such as coordinating with the Navy and building quieter state ferries. But the proposal to ban orca-watching expeditions seems rash and should be given a closer look.

These boats stand out as beacons in the Northwest’s busy waters; they help tip off other vessels that orcas are nearby, alert them to slow down and stay at least 200 yards away, and model other Be Whale Wise boating practices.They’re about more than tourism; they instill thousands of voyagers a year with a conservation spirit and an appreciation for marine wildlife of all kinds.

No less than the governor recognized the value of the industry earlier this year when he released an interim action plan for orca recovery. Inslee called for a system to train whale-watching boats as “vessels of opportunity” and deploy them after oil spills. The state developed a curriculum last spring.

Something else to consider is whether too much fuss is being made over boat noise, perhaps diverting attention from bigger threats to whales.

One orca expert, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, makes a credible case that the goal to reduce boat noise has “a feel-good veneer,” which he says is based on “naïve hypotheses elevated to hysterical dogma.” In his minority opinion attached to the task force report, Balcomb explains that orcas “are exquisitely adapted to interpret their acoustic environment as it changes.”

His No. 1 solution to save the orcas? Through their mouths, not their ears. To improve salmon runs, Balcomb wants more aggressive action than the task force recommended to pursue breaching or removal of the Lower Snake River Dams.

We’re not ready to go that far, but we agree that steps to save the orcas must be based on solid science. When the task force resumes its work next year, it should reconsider geographically oriented protections, such as a “no-go” or “go-slow” zone for boats off the west coast of San Juan Island.

An all-out suspension of orca cruises would make a bigger splash, of course. But it also would remove some of the whales’ best allies from the water.

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