Whale watchers update guidelines; Canada to restrict salmon fishing

Commercial operators who take visitors on whale-watching cruises in the Salish Sea have vowed to follow new, more restrictive guidelines to reduce noise and disturbance around the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

The new guidelines, adopted by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, go beyond state and federal regulations and even beyond the voluntary “Be Whale Wise” guidelines promoted by state and federal agencies and many whale advocacy groups. For the first time, the commercial guidelines include time limits for watching any group of whales.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has announced that it will restrict fishing for chinook salmon — the killer whales’ primary prey — to help save the whales from extinction. The goal is to reduce fishery removals of 25 to 35 percent, but details have yet to be released. More about that in a moment.

The new whale-watch guidelines are based largely on recent research into much how much noise reaches killer whales when multiple boats are in the vicinity, said Jeff Friedman, president of the PWWA.

Jeff noted that the guidelines have been endorsed by every commercial whale-watch operator who regularly takes people out to see whales. Every whale-watch boat captain must pass a test to certify personal knowledge of the guidelines, which were adopted in March, he added.

Jeff said his organization would like all boaters to understand and follow the guidelines. Going further, he hopes the “Be Whale Wise” guidelines and its website can be updated as well.

“One of the most important things in there — and we have been doing this for some time — is the slow speed around the whales,” he said. “That minimizes the sound coming from our vessels.”

He explained that new studies show that boats moving at high speed produce far more engine noise than boats moving slowly. Lower underwater sound levels might help the whales communicate better and improve their ability to locate fish through echolocation.

The new guidelines extend the go-slow zone around whales from 0.25 mile to 1 kilometer (0.62 mile). In this zone, boats should never go faster than 7 knots.

Time limits are a new provision. No vessel should ever be around a group of whales more than an hour, according to the guidelines, or 30 minutes when more than 10 commercial whale-watch boats are nearby.

Years ago, the Southern Resident orcas were the only show in town, Jeff said. Now there may be transient orcas, humpback whales and gray whales at various times, along with other wildlife. That offers a variety of viewing opportunities. Unfortunately, he added, it is now rare to see a Southern Resident, which means they are not finding food in their traditional areas.

In fact, he noted, so far this month the whales have not been seen in areas around the San Juan Islands. If we go through the month of May without a single Southern Resident sighting, it will be the first year ever that whales were not seen in May — going back to at least the 1970s, when researchers started keeping records.

Communication, coordination and respect for other whale-watch boats is emphasized in the new guidelines. For example, when approaching an area where whales are being watched, boat operators should move to the outside of vessels in the area and adopt a course of travel parallel to that of the whales.

The distance from all killer whales remains 200 yards on the U.S. side of the border, consistent with state and federal regulations. The distance is 100 yards from other whales. In Canada, the prescribed distance is 200 meters from the Southern Residents and 100 meters from other whales. In all cases, additional distances should be added if warranted by the whales’ behavior, according to the guidelines.

Special provisions are imposed near the Race Rocks Marine Protected Area and the west side of San Juan Island. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently asked all boaters — including sport fishers — to voluntarily stay at least one-fourth mile off the west side of San Juan Island and a half-mile from Lime Kiln Lighthouse. (See Water Ways, May 9.) That distance to shore has been in the guidelines, although the no-go area was extended south along the shoreline.

As always, sonar, depth sounders and fish finders should be shut off when a vessel is in the vicinity of whales, according to the guidelines, but new research suggests that this issue should be emphasized more than ever, Jeff said.

He said some of the guidelines should be incorporated into regulations or state law, as proposed by Sen. Kevin Ranker’s Orca Protection Act,. The proposed legislation underwent multiple lives during the last legislative session but failed to make it into law, as I described in Water Ways, Feb. 23. Now, potential legal changes are under consideration by the governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.

As for the Canada’s upcoming fishing restrictions, partial closures are being proposed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Gulf Islands and areas near the mouth of the Fraser River. Additional measures along the coast of British Columbia may include harvest limits, size limits and size restrictions as well as area closures, according to a news release issued by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

In announcing the restrictions, Minister of Fisheries Dominic LeBlanc, made this statement:

“Southern Resident Killer Whales need our help in order to survive and recover. Together with my colleague, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, we have determined that the species faces an imminent threat to its survival and recovery, and we need to keep taking concrete action.

“Today I am pleased to announce new fishery management measures to increase prey availability and reduce disturbances to these whales and we continue to work hard on additional actions to be put in place soon.”

In a separate announcement, the government said it would provide $9.5 million for eight projects to restore habitat for chinook salmon to help Southern Resident killer whales. The funding is part of a $1.5-billion effort to protect Canada’s coasts and waterways called the Oceans Protection Plan.

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