Feds get serious about the effects of whale watching

The idea of regulating whale watching around killer whales, particularly in the San Juan Islands, has gotten a lot of attention the past few years.

First, San Juan County approved an ordinance in 2007 that required boaters to stay back 100 yards from the whales. That was followed by a state law in 2008. Now, the federal government proposes to turn their longstanding 100-yard “guidelines” into a 200-foot enforceable rule. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

I first wrote about the concerns of whale watching nine years ago — before the whales were listed under the Endangered Species Act. (See my story from July 2, 2000.) I think it is safe to say — and Kari Koski of Soundwatch confirms this — boaters have generally gotten more responsible, particularly commercial whale-watch operators based in the U.S.

This is a complex issue, in part because the killer whales themselves are complex creatures with a high level of intelligence. Trying to rebuild a population of killer whales is nothing like rebuilding a population of salmon. I could say a lot more about that, but instead I’ll make a few observations about the federal action.

First, it is important to note that the federal government is recognizing whale watching as a legitimate recreational and educational activity. Otherwise, the National Marine Fisheries Service would have come up with more stringent rules to discourage whale watching altogether.

Lynne Barre of the agency told me that the 200-yard rule is a compromise, since studies have shown that the whales may change their behaviors when boats are present at even greater distances than that.

Given that boats can cause whales to act differently, as indicated in recent studies, the question becomes: What kind of behavioral changes are harmful to the whales?

This will take more consideration from those of us not familiar with the latest research. But Shane Aggergaard of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, who has been trying to keep up with the research, made some good points when I talked with him.

One study, for example, showed that orcas tend to increase the intensity of their calls — to essentially speak louder — in the presence of noise. That’s only natural, Shane says. It’s what we all do.

The real question becomes what kind of noise, what kind of boat activity really disturbs the whales psychologically or disrupts their social or feeding behaviors to a detrimental degree?

This one is harder to get a grip on, because killer whales are not predictable. Sometimes they even initiate contact with people.

The general approach to this issue for years, now written into state law, is to reduce the level of interaction. When whale watching, the idea is to observe the whales doing their natural activities from a distance without affecting what they are doing.

The proposed federal regulations, based on scientific observations, take the position that the current 100-yard standard is not enough to keep the whales focused on activities essential to the survival of the population.

But it is not enough to pass new regulations. If the new 200-yard standard goes into effect, then we need an intensive educational campaign, far beyond what we have seen before. That’s because the 100-yard limit has been pounded into people’s heads.

Soundwatch received a federal grant to help boaters become aware of the new state law and the longstanding Be Whale Wise guidelines. The organization sent brochures and posters to 400 marinas and parks. But even that effort has not been enough to get the word to everyone who needs to know, Kari says. One idea is creating some kind of marine protected area and noting the rules on nautical charts, she said.

Education can only go so far. Kari, who must be respected for her years spent watching whale watchers, believes a stronger enforcement program at the outset, with more tickets issued, would have sent a stronger message about protecting the whales.

Sgt. Russ Mullins of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife runs marine patrols in the San Juan Islands under at contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Mullins says his effort has been largely to issue warnings as he helps educate people about how to act around the whales.

It seems important to explore the right balance between educating people and laying down the law.

A couple points of personal disclosure: I will admit that I’m a little uncomfortable with the whole idea of whale watching, because it results in so many boats following the whales all day long. These animals never asked to be celebrities, followed around by eager fans.

On the other hand, I can see the educational value of watching whales in the wild. I have personally experienced the thrill of being around killer whales, thanks to researchers who have invited me along for their field work. Not everyone gets to do that, though I encourage young people to pursue exciting careers in science. I would also like to point out that watching whales from shore can be exciting while creating no risk of interfering with their activities.

If you’d like to catch up on this subject, NOAA has launched a new Web page, “Regulations on Vessel Effects,” which includes scientific references, the Federal Register notice, a draft environmental assessment, questions and answers about the proposed regulations, a map of the proposed no-go zone, a regulatory review document and a large number of comments from the 2007 “advance notice of rulemaking.”

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