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Monday, October 5, 2009

NOAA Vessel Regulation Meeting in Friday Harbor

Tonight was the final public meeting to gather comments about NOAA's proposed vessel regulations for operating around the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. For some more background on the issue you can read my previous post on the subject here. It was a full house at Friday Harbor High School where more than 100 people gave 2-minute public comments in the three hour and 45 minute meeting.

I won't attempt to convey everything that was said, but there was strong representation from the commercial whale watching and sport fishing industries, as well as a decent amount of comments from kayakers and residents who live on the westside of San Juan Island in the proposed no-go zone area. There was a lot of support for the alternate proposal put forth by the Pacific Whale Watch Association and others, asking for a slow-go zone rather than a no-go zone. Nearly all of those who supported the no-go zone asked for exemptions for kayakers, and often for recreational fisherman as well. A lot of comments also focused on the difficult issue of enforcement (or lack thereof), and the fact that we need to focus on the salmon issue. I recognize that this meeting and comment period are about vessel effects, but in my opinion it's off-base to talk about the long-term survival of these whales and not put salmon recovery as a top priority. NOAA says they are doing things to address salmon recovery, but so far very little of this reported activity has been in the public eye.

Here are the comments I made during my two minutes:

The Southern Residents were only listed as endangered after they were designated as a distinct population segment, which defines them as separate not only from other cetaceans, but from other members of their own species. It seems inconsistent, then, that so much of the science cited in the proposal focuses on a wide variety of other species from other places. As one example, I’ll point out that a primary citation for the impact of kayaks on killer whales comes from studies of Steller sea lion haul outs in Alaska.

Of the science that does specifically focus on the Southern Residents, the results are tenuous at best. If you talk directly to the researchers you will realize many of the results are more inconclusive than indicated in the proposal. Even if you accept their findings, for instance that whales do more surface active behaviors or vocalize louder in the presence of boats, you have to realize that these changes in behavior are not biologically significant. I understand that ideally we don’t want humans to impact whale behavior in any way, but when talking about their survival, extra tail slaps or louder calls are not going to make or break this population.

No matter how many regulations we put in place, there will continue to be violations. Not just because these regulations would be difficult to enforce, or the fact that there is insufficient enforcement for even our current regulations, but because after spending nine years observing these whales from boats and shore, it is clear to me that they are going to do whatever they want to do whether boats are there or not. They will chase salmon under boats if that’s where they want to feed, they will change direction and pass near a boat if that’s where they want to travel, and they will even seek out boats like freighters (the loudest, largest, and fastest moving vessels the whales routinely encounter) just to surf in their wakes for the fun of it like I saw them do a few weeks ago.

So much time and effort has been focused on the vessel issue. I wish this much energy was being put towards salmon recovery, the true deal breaker for the Southern Resident orcas.

While of course there were a lot of varying opinions in the room, overall I think my comments were pretty well received. On my way back to my seat I received lots of pats on the back, handshakes, high fives, and even (half jokingly) a job offer! Since the vessel proposal was put out, I've spent so much time mulling all this over, and after all that thinking I ended up writing the above statement pretty quickly the night before the meeting. I wasn't sure what, if anything, to say at the meeting and then it be claim clear to me the points I feel most passionate about. It's encouraging and hopeful to know that so many people agree with those sentiments.

It was overall a great community event and it was great to see people from so many different backgrounds take the time to be there and make comments. I sincerely hope NOAA takes all these comments into serious consideration before moving forward with these or any alternative regulations.

Anyway, that's all for now. I'm sure there will be a lot more in the media between now and the end of October. Again, I strongly encourage all of you to submit your own written comments to NOAA by October 27th. You can find all the necessary links on my previous blog post.

Check back tomorrow for some photos from today's AMAZING encounter with J-Pod!!


Vera said...

Bravo! Extremely well-said. Now if only everybody else could see it as clearly as you do.

julie said...

you are one awesome biologist and naturalist, monika! you hit the target with your speech and i am so glad you chose to make it. your past experience with the whales and your biology/behavioral background make you an ideal spokesperson on this issue. and though i was sad that i couldn't be there, you said exactly what i felt. thanks!!

Jane said...

Don't whore yourself out to the whale watch industry like you have. You got high fives because you are saying what they want you to say. You are intelligent enough to figure out that vessel effects are just one of the areas that the Orca recovery plan is working towards. This is not the only thing being done. Salmon will be addressed. Vessel effects need to be addressed and I hope that NOAA does not listen to people that think with their wallets. In regards to your assertion about the scientific literature cited, there are 36 pages of scientific documents listed in the Orca Recovery Plan. I support NOAA in their duty to recover the Southern Resident Killer Whale population. I hope the no-go zone comes true. I also hope they don't kick kayaks out, as they are silent. Boats, fisherman (including all commercial salmon fishing in puget sound) needs to stop. People need to realize we have a whale sanctuary right here on island that does not effect the whales. It's called Lime Kiln.. ever heard of it?

Monika said...

Jane - I'm not "whoring myself out" to anyone. I was very clear in my introduction of myself at the meeting that I was there as a concerned citizen not representing any entity, and it's true - my comments were wholly my own, and I stand behind them very strongly.

I realize some people think that the whale watch operators are against the proposed guidelines because of their monetary investment in the industry. That's definitely part of it. I don't think that's all of it, though, as all the operators I've talked to care very strongly about the whales and their well-being. Clearly others have different opinions, and I respect that.

I do understand vessel effects is just one of the areas being addressed. I certainly hope salmon will be addressed, but as far as I can tell, no steps have been taken to seriously address it yet, and as far as I'm concerned we should get started on that now since it is clearly the most important issue facing the whales. I think the discussion of vessel effects is a very, very good one to be having - but not at the expense of other, more important issues.

Of the 36 pages of literature cited, very little of it focuses on Southern Residents. Yes, we can learn a lot from other species, but in some cases the conclusions drawn are ludicrous - like the fact that kayaks impact whales because kayaks impact Steller sea lion haul outs. I understand we have to base our regulations on the best available science. Based on the best available science (and I have read a lot of it), I think any regulations we impose would be based on the precautionary principle, and not on what the science is clearly telling us, since right now it is not telling us much. If that's how this proposal was being sold to us (as precautionary), it would be a different story and there might be more supporters of it.

Yes, I've heard of Lime Kiln. I've volunteered there for five years and watched whales from there for nine years. Right now, it is a voluntary sanctuary only. I'm not sure what you mean by it "does not effect the whales". In my opinion, it DOESN'T effect the whales. The main benefit from it is that shore-based whale watchers get better views and photo-ops of the whales with boats staying further off.

Thanks for your comments, but I do offense to the fact that you see me whoring myself out... I've thought about this a lot, and talked to many people with many different views when forming my own opinion. Let me just state again that I represent no one but myself, though my background includes watching whales from shore and from boats, volunteering on Soundwatch, working as a researcher (I have a paper on the Southern Residents in press right now), and working as a naturalist.

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rigging training said...

I am hoping that there will be more safety precautions for these orca in this busy shipping route. I read that sonar can inflict damage in their sensories.