What would Puget Sound’s killer whales really want?

Two hearings regarding proposed boating regulations to protect Puget Sound orcas from noise and disturbance have brought out a variety of opinions. Folks involved in the whale-watching industry showed up in large numbers, as did sport and commercial fishers.

Scott Veirs, who studies the acoustics of killer whales, blogged about last night’s meeting in Seattle:

“Overall, there were strong objections to the entire suite of alternatives — from the 200 yard viewing distance to the no-go zone. People for Puget Sound went on record saying that a no-go zone was a step too far. And Ken Balcomb (Center for Whale Research) voted for no action.

“I was left with a profound disappointment that so many felt so unfairly burdened by the proposed rules. If the people who most intimately and consistently share the southern resident’s habitat aren’t willing to make a sacrifice to preserve the basis of their livelihoods, how can we expect the public to act selflessly for our regional icons: the orca and the salmon?”

I thought the piece put together by reporter Mark Wright of KCPQ-TV (viewer above right) provided a nicely summarized and balanced perspective on the issue, though it did not examine the scientific issue.

To dig more deeply, take a loot at the extensive list of comments compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2007 when “potential vessel regulations” were being discussed. Information about the proposed rule — including questions and answers — can be found on the page “Regulations on Vessel Effects.”

A few odds and ends in recent days:

People for Puget Sound:

“People For Puget Sound supports the distance (200 yards) and no intentional parking in the path of traveling whales

“People For Puget Sound agrees in concept with a “no-go zone” akin to the Robson Bight protected area in British Columbia, but has concerns about the scientific basis, actual size, exemptions for some types of operations, access to public parks, unintended consequences, feasibility of enforcement, and other questions.

“People For Puget Sound suggests that NOAA convene a vessel operator stakeholder group that includes commercial fishing operators, container and cruise ship operators, small recreational boat companies, recreational boating and fishing groups, research vessel operators, military, whale watching companies and others to discuss operational issues and ensure that fair treatment is given to all. Tribal fishing operators should also be part of a further consultation process.”

Candace Calloway Whiting, a volunteer with the Center for Whale Research:

“A positive aspect to this is that our whale watching adventures can be enhanced because we will more fully appreciate how the whales behave when not surrounded by our boats. In addition, the creation of a seasonal refuge will impact other species – we may find that marine mammals (such as Harbor porpoises) and seabirds will also use the area more fully, and our whale watching trips will be further enriched.

“On the downside, I feel that the proposed regulations have been painted with too broad a brush and hopefully some adjustments can be made before being adopted. Although I understand the logic behind the decisions to apply the rules equally to power boats and kayaks, for example, I think this penalizes those people who wish to find alternatives, and discourages innovation. The blanket rules provide no incentives for responsible viewing nor do they provide a way to enforce the regulations that I was able to see. And I am perplexed by the fact that the refuge as planned does not include the preferred rest areas of the orcas, as defined by NMFS in their documents.”

Shane Aggergaard, Pacific Whale Watch Association

Our recommendation for the new proposed vessel regulations is a combination of Scenario #1 and Scenario #2 from the Draft Environmental Assessment, and an additional element which is supported by the available vessel/killer whale science that we have seen to date.

The PWWA recommends:

Vessels may not negligently be within 100 meters of Southern Resident Killer Whales in Washington, Oregon, and California, except under special permit issued by NOAA.

Vessels must avoid the established path of Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Vessels must obey a 7 knot speed restriction year round from Eagle Point to Mitchell Point, along San Juan Island, out 1/2 mile, except for official law enforcement vessels or vessels engaged in emergency and rescue situations.

This recommendation is more restrictive than the current state law and is within the spirit of the Marine Mammal Protection Act… The PWWA recommendation takes into account sound and proximity issues, foraging, traveling, socializing and resting behaviors, important habitat protection and further reduces the potential for vessel strikes. It is in accordance with the precautionary principles used to date for the whales’ protection and does not diminish the important educational elements of commercial whale watching. The PWWA recommendation will not negatively contribute to the economy, and is a fair and reasonable law that is less likely to be challenged and overturned in the future.

Mark Anderson, Orca Relief

“We know that the whales are starving, and we know that boat presence accelerates their starvation.

“But we know something else, thanks to the NMFS staff who presented the rule finding guidelines at the federal hearing in Friday Harbor: we know that it is illegal to pursue an endangered species.

“Surely this is a typo, or a mistake; otherwise, how could so many companies be in business doing just that, pursuing whales?

“No, it is not a mistake: it was repeated three times, at our request, in response to the first questions at that hearing, by NMFS biologist, attorneys, and administrators. No mistake, stated three times, verbatim: “it is illegal to pursue the Southern Resident Orca.”

“If we know that boat presence is contributing directly to whale deaths, and if it is illegal to pursue these animals, NMFS has no cause to pursue incremental changes to a set of whale watch operator guidelines taken from 1950s NMFS regulations on watching grey (baleen) whales…

“You want to move the goal posts from 100 yards to 200 yards for boats, as though they will obey this impossible rule any better than the last one. To the toothed whales, trying to hear underwater, the difference is not enough to matter.”

4 thoughts on “What would Puget Sound’s killer whales really want?

  1. They would want us to adopt a reasonable set of rules that apply to everyone – regardless of race – equally. Think we’ll do that?

  2. There must have been over 250 people at the Seattle Aquarium last night to provide public comment to NOAA’s proposed vessel regulations for Puget Sound killer whales. Most all of the comments were from unhappy whale watchers, commercial fisherman, recreational anglers, and kayakers, especially about the proposed “ no go zone” and its inevitable impact on their business and recreational pleasure. While they love orcas and enjoy making a living off the orca, it is at the expense of this endangered species.

    I commend NOAA and NMFS’s proposed vessel regulations, as this rule making is a critical piece of the puzzle to protect and recover Puget Sound’s iconic, beloved and endangered killer whales. Action on this threat is long over due. If we expect the orca populations to recover for future generations to enjoy and marvel, sacrifices must be made NOW by those who love and live off whale watching and catching the orcas‘ food source.

    For several years I have witnessed first hand how vessels, mostly recreational anglers, recreational whale watchers, commercial fisherman and some commercial whale watching operators have violated the current 100 yard regulation. My observations are from the west side of San Juan Island, right in the middle of the proposed „no-go zone“. I am in total support of the vessel regulations NOAA has proposed with some minor modifications to the „no-go zone“.

    I am skeptical of the exceptions proposed to accommodate commercial fisherman, government vessels, and cargo vessels as they are part of the problem. Exemptions will just create a huge rift among all the stakeholders who are affected.

    Although vessel operational changes are part of the solution, NOAA continues to delay on more critical actions that are needed to protect and recovery Puget Sound’s resident endangered orca whales, such as: restoration of salmon runs through removal of dams; restoration of habitat, land use restrictions, water quality improvements and changes in harvest and hatchery practices; reduction of toxic pollution that impacts the food web; and reduction of noise impacts from sonar and other activities.

    Enforcement is a key pragmatic issue that should be addressed regarding both existing and proposed regulations. Without a much-improved strategy for education and enforcement, it makes no sense to increase restrictions as it would be guaranteed to fail. One of the major vessel issues is inappropriate and harassing behavior by recreational boaters who are apparently unaware of the existing limits.

    For the orca!

  3. A week of ago, Fisheries also held a meeting in Anacortes – with the same special interest groups in attendance. The attendance at this meeting was also close to 250 people – significantly more than the remaining 85 orcas of the Southern Resident Orcas (J-, K-, and L-pods). The population of Anacortes is approaching 15,000 people and the population of the central Puget Sound is nearing 4,000,000 people. Against such overwhelming odds, our resident Orcas are in desperate need of protection.

  4. Starting from the value that we want the best possible environment for the Southern Residents, including the most plentiful Chinook runs, the cleanest, healthiest water, and the least noise and vessel disturbance, there’s a need to balance between avoiding all disturbance and the benefits of instilling an appreciation in whale-watchers of the astounding natural history of Orcinus orca, plus the need for all of us to restore habitat by dismantling some dams, protecting shorelines, opening tidelands and estuaries, maintaining buffers around streams and wetlands, reducing harvest, by-catch, toxic pollution, stormwater run-off and careless logging, plus restoring streams and rivers, strengthening the ESA, NEPA, Clean Water and Air laws, improving global environmental cooperation and effectively addressing global warming, and more issues than I can remember at any one time. Bringing up these issues leads to even more sticky problems like birth control and consumption restraint. In short we need to wake people up to how we have mis-managed our natural heritage, how we’ve denied the relationship between ourselves and the natual world, considered ecosystems as warehouses for commodities that belong to us, and believed our job is to exploit, manipulate, disturb, simplify or manufacture nature to satisfy our short-term desires.

    Right, this is an ambitious message to try to broadcast, even on a whale watch boat where passengers are often transfixed on the wonders of those magnificent, powerful and graceful beings as they glide so effortlessly, play so enthusiastically and bond so lovingly in traditional extended families. But speaking as a naturalist myself, it sometimes happens, but the perspective of how the experience is interpreted sometimes gets lost when people feel backed into a corner with their self-interest and deeply held opinions.

    So on one hand I’d like the orcas’ waters to be as quiet and free of disturbance as possible, and on the other hand I’m sorry to see such distance between the watchers and the whales that people can no longer can feel the orcas’ presence and so may not open their hearts and minds to the behavioral changes that could help provide the whales the best environment possible. At the same time I’m aware that the narration can sometimes sound more like a Disney World trip than a visit to the world of the orca, which makes that whole argument moot. Overall, I’m not sure of what the right distance is, especially since that depends largely on the skills, knowledge and message of the naturalists, but 200 yards seems worth a try, and the distance itself teaches respect.

    This only begins to address the many complexities and implications of these proposed regs, so rather than try to deal with the effects on kayakers, fishers of all sorts, boaters, the problem of adequately funding enforcement, the greater economy, etc. etc., I’ll refer to the comments by People for Puget Sound, which pretty well cover the important issues in a thoughtful, balanced way.

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