The proposed recovery plan developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) identifies three main threats as contributing factors to the recently observed population decline: diminishing prey abundance, pollutants in the water, and vessel effects, which includes both direct interference and sound contributed primarily by underwater engine noise.
Commercial whale watchers have for many years followed a set of voluntary guidelines restricting boat behavior around the whales, including but not limited to not approaching the whales closer than 100 yards, slowing vessels down within 400 yards of the whales, not approaching the whales from directly in front of or behind them, and not parking in their path. They also observe a voluntary “no-go” zone covering much of the westside of San Juan Island when the whales are present, staying ¼ mile offshore for most of the shoreline, ½ mile offshore near Lime Kiln Lighthouse, and 1/8 mile offshore at all other coastlines. In June of 2008 it became illegal in the state of Washington to intentionally motor within 100 yards of Southern Resident orcas.
In the first major conservation effort since the endangered listing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has partnered with NMFS and at the end of July released a set of new proposed vessel regulations that would apply to boats near killer whales in US waters. They are recommending that law prohibit vessels from approaching within 200 yards of killer whales, and that boats of all types (with a few specific exceptions) observe a mandatory no-go zone, whether whales are present or not, for ½ mile off most of the Westside of San Juan Island from May 1 to September 30 every year, the peak season the Southern Residents are in the area.
These proposed vessel regulations have spawned what many are calling the San Juan Island version of “Whale Wars”, with lots of media attention focusing on the opinions on both sides of this issue ranging from one extreme to the other. Some people feel that these regulations are a long time coming, that whale watch vessels are a significant contributor to the decline of these whales, and that these proposed rules are not extreme enough. Others feel that NOAA is barking up the wrong tree and focusing on the wrong issue entirely, these regulations will do nothing to significantly help the whales, and instead that all these rules will do is decrease the whale-watching experience and have a negative effect on the local economy. I’ve largely stayed quiet on this issue so far, taking some time to gather my thoughts, do some research, and seek out the opinions of others that I respect – some of you may recognize some of your sentiments echoed below. My thoughts and opinions could easily be more long-winded than they already are, but for those who are interested, here are some key points I feel pretty strongly about:
- It is clear that the three identified threats to Southern Residents can be prioritized by importance in this order: 1) not enough salmon, 2) toxins in the environment, 3) vessel effects. I understand NOAA is focusing on vessel effects first because it is the easiest issue to tackle in the short term, but it still seems backwards to me, and I wish half as much energy was being focused on talking about salmon issues as is being expended talking about boats.
- Kayakers, to be blunt, are getting screwed by these regulations. There have been no studies looking specifically at the impact of kayaking on local orcas, and they are just getting lumped in with all other vessels when in reality they are the quietest and slowest-moving of the crafts we see out there with the whales. Closing the westside of San Juan Island to kayaking in the summer months would have huge local economic impacts – not only to local kayak companies, but to other local venues such as hotels and restaurants, as well as to the San Juan County Park system which gets a significant amount of money from both commercial and private kayakers that launch from the park on the westside.
- The whole reason we are even talking about the endangered listing of the Southern Residents is because they were designated a distinct population segment, different not only from other types of marine mammals but actually culturally unique from all other groups of killer whales. Why is it, then, that most of the studies cited in NOAA’s proposal report the impact of vessels not even on killer whales, but on other species entirely: humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, right whales, etc. If these whales are endangered because of their uniqueness then any decisions regarding their management should be based on studies focused specifically on them. Note, for instance, that their statement about kayakers affecting the whales is backed by a citation of a study on the impact of kayaks on terrestrial Steller sea lion haul outs in Glacier Bay, Alaska.
- There is no strong science supporting the statement that boats are in any way contributing to the decline of the Southern Resident population. Research on the local whales has shown some impact of boats influencing surface behaviors and vocalizations, and I understand that NOAA’s viewpoint is that any disturbance of an endangered species is a negative one. But we really have to consider not only observed vessel impacts, but the biological significance of any recorded impacts. If whales occasionally tailslap more often when a boat is in close proximity or increase the amplitude of their calls when vessel noise is high, is that really affecting the fitness of these animals? Does it translate, for instance, into them needing more salmon, or being less effective at hunting?
- The most convincing studies of vessel effects have been acoustic, describing changes in the vocalizations the whales make when boat engine noise is high. These proposed regulations to little to address that issue specifically, especially since the most significant contributors of noise – shipping traffic, which is louder even if the boats themselves are further away from the whales – are completely ignored. How about making the ½ mile zone on the west side a SLOW go zone instead of a no-go zone, which would reduce engine noise but still make this area accessible to whale watchers, recreational boaters, and kayakers.
- The enforcement (or rather, the lack thereof) of these regulations will be a nightmare. I don’t see there magically being more enforcement boats on the water with the passing of these regulations. Right now, most of the vessel monitoring occurs by Soundwatch, a program of The Whale Museum that is on the water to act as a watchdog to commercial boats as well as be a boat-based education program that passes out whale watch guidelines to private boaters. There are only occasionally enforcement boats on the water that have the ability to write tickets to boats violating the motoring within 100 yard law, but they rarely hand out actual citations since they don’t feel enough education has been done to keep private boaters from committing these violations. From having volunteered on Soundwatch, I know its true that many private boaters approached by Soundwatch have no idea what the current whale watch guidelines are, even though they have been in place in one form or another for 10-15 years. I think it makes more sense to commit time and money to educating the public (mandatory education with boat registration, perhaps?) about the current regulations we have in place to increase compliance with those, rather than implement new regulations that, in essence, only the commercial whale watchers will know about. What will happen in reality is you will have the commercial whale watch boats following the new rules and staying ½ mile offshore, watching private boats watch whales right along the shoreline of San Juan Island, with no one to tell them not to do so.
- Soundwatch reports that most of their observed vessel behavior violations occur by private boaters, who are, as discussed above, largely unaware or oblivious to even the current boater regulations. I know critics will be quick to point out that plenty of commercial whale watch boats also commit violations, and I don’t disagree. Many people take this to mean that the whale watch boats are ineffectual at policing themselves, but it is on this point that I disagree. Over the last nine summers I’ve watched whales here (and I’ve watched them a lot from both shore and from boats) I have seen a huge improvement in the behavior of commercial boats around the whales I think it’s the general sentiment that commercial boats are better behaved than they were ten years ago. What people need to realize is that there will never NOT be incidents of boats being close to whales. You can regulate people all you want, but until you can regulate the whales (read: never), they are going to continue doing what they please, which means being unpredictable in their traveling and surfacing patterns. I have the honor of working with several whale watch captains who do all they can to comply with the whale watch guidelines, but even they sometimes “get caught” with whales too close to the boat, and when this happens, we just cut our engines and enjoy the moment for what it is – a nice view of the whales doing whatever they want.
- I think it is naïve to say that the regulations will have no impact on the whale-watching experience. Currently, there are already trips we run where we don’t see the whales closer than 200 yards, and people are very content with these views. But on those days when the whales are all along the shoreline of San Juan Island and the boats have to be a ½ mile away, it is going to be a tough sell. The whales do spend a lot of time in this zone, but it has not been demonstrated that it is of any particular importance to them culturally, as the Robson Bight Ecological Preserve is for the Northern Residents. Imagine what it will be like if all of J-Pod is inshore and J1 Ruffles is the only whale further than a ½ mile offshore, which often happens. You will have the entire whale-watching fleet on one whale, rather than spread out over the whole pod.
- Finally, I think it is important to remember the role that whale-watching places in the preservation of the Southern Residents. On a daily basis we, as a commercial whale watch company, establish lifelong connections between people and the whales. I think whale-watch boats play an invaluable role in the education of the public on the real issues threatening the orcas – declining salmon stocks and toxins in the water. I have seen countless people transformed after they see a wild orca, touched for life by spending an hour observing killer whales in their natural habitat. I often spend the whole trip back to port talking to people about the threats the whales face and what they can do to help. Yes, we need to monitor the impact of vessels around the whales, and continue to discuss and develop guidelines and ways to educate all boaters about safe practices around the whales. But rather than target whale watching as a front-and-center reason for the decline of local whales, a statement that has no basis in the scientific literature, I think we need to recognize whale-watching for what it is: a platform to foster a sense of stewardship about not only our local endangered whales, but the entire ecosystem that they, and all of us really, depend on.