Consider the plight of the Salish Sea’s Southern Resident killer whales over the last 50 years:
Over that time, the population of Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) has ranged from a low of 71 in 1974 due to capture, to a high of 99 in 1996, to today’s 73.
The population decline has prompted the federal government to place both the SRKW and its primary prey, the chinook salmon, under the Endangered Species Act and to adopt management plans for their recovery. Washington has likewise adopted action measures developed by its Task Force on Southern Resident Orca Recovery.
Lack of prey, toxic pollution and vessel interactions are primary factors identified in SRKW decline, the latter from commercial and recreational whale watching activities.
As of press time as this week ended, ESB 5371, requiring a mandatory 1,000-yard buffer between all motorized watercraft and SRKWs, had passed in both houses of the Legislature and advanced to reconciliation. The bill is sponsored by Liz Lovelett (D-Anacortes).
Chinook populations continue to plummet, and a recent study has indicated inbreeding may doom the SRKW species. Meanwhile, plans are being made to return home the SRKW orca Tokitae, taken from Puget Sound waters in the ’70s, and counties and municipalities have passed proclamations recognizing the natural rights of orca whales.
How much of a difference can additional whale watching laws make in restoring the SRKW?
Fewer whales, more boats
“The whale watching of the 1990s is long gone,” said Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.
The SKRW are spending less time in the area. A 2023 study published in the Journal of Marine Mammal Science found that “17 years of whale sighting data shows that as the Fraser River chinook salmon population dropped, the time spent by the Southern Residents around the San Juan Islands also declined — by more than 75%.”
SoundWatch, a program of The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, tracks the number of commercial boats in the area and provides boater education. COVID-19 dramatically curtailed commercial whale watching but increased as recovery began, the program found.
Commercial whale watching grew rapidly from just a few boats in the late 1970s, with fewer than 1,000 total passengers, into the late 1990s when vessel numbers grew to about 80 boats and passenger totals of about half a million customers per year. Canadian companies joined in, and by 2006, it was estimated that Canadian boats made of 71% of the fleet.
An increase in both the number of hours per day and the number of weeks per year when commercial whale watch boats travelled with the whales was also reported by SoundWatch. Many SRKWs were seen accompanied by boats throughout much or all of the day. The average number of vessels following groups of whales at any one time during the peak summer months increased from five boats in 1990 to 18–26 boats in 1996 to 2006. Annual maximum counts of 72–120 boats were made near whales in 1998 to 2006.
Like going blind
One of the threats to SKRWs identified in the federal 2008 Recovery Plan is vessel effects and sound. The recovery plan guides the process for a species to avoid extinction, per the Endangered Species Act.
Vessels and vessel noise is also one of four primary goal areas that resulted from the 2018 Governor’s Task Force on Southern Resident Orca Recovery. Of 49 recommendations, a slow-speed zone and a licensing program have been implemented. ESB 5371 follows up on regulations adopted in 2021 establishing distance requirements for whale watching from vessels.
Underwater noise interferes with and masks orcas’ echolocation, making it hard for them to find food, navigate waters and communicate with each other.
Mark Anderson, San Juan Island, founded Orca Relief Citizens Alliance in 1997 with a focus on the impact of commercial whale watching, particularly the effects of sound. Based on scientific research, Anderson said that this interruption is equivalent to a human becoming blind. “It’s impossible for humans to understand the damage,” he lamented.
“At times of low chinook count, the presence of motorized watercraft impairs the whales’ ability to hunt while increasing their energy output, with the result that they are driven to starvation,” Anderson said.
What might change
A commercial whale watching licensing program was approved in 2021 by the state legislature. Rules were developed for license holders to reduce daily and cumulative impacts of whale watching on SRKW. It is unlawful for any commercial or recreational vessel to approach within 300 yards of an SRKW or to position a vessel to be in the path of an SRKW at any point located within 400 yards of the whale.
The current two-tiered approach treats commercial vessels differently — they must stay 1,000 yards away except for a four-hour window during the summer months when no more than three vessels at a time can approach up to 300 feet. This opportunity is eliminated under ESB 5371.
ESB 5371 creates a consistent 1,000-yard no-go zone for both commercial and recreational whale watch vessels.
Additionally, no vessels can approach closer than 1,000 yards to groups containing a calf of less than one year of age or a whale declared vulnerable due to poor body condition by the Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Whales declared vulnerable are in the lowest 20% compared to other whales by age and sex at similar times of the year. The classification of poor body condition is linked to a two- to three-times higher risk of mortality.
There are now 12 SRKW listed as vulnerable (compared to five in 2021): five members of J-Pod and seven members of L-Pod.
Anderson said he supports the bill and believes the 1,000-yard buffer “will make a huge difference.”
Perspective from the water
“What many people don’t realize is that this bill doesn’t really change anything for commercial whale watch vessels,” Gless said. The 1,000-yard distance stipulated by the bill is nothing new to professional whale watchers, but it is new to recreational vessels.”
Gless also emphasized that their tours focus on other species in the region, such as thriving Bigg’s (mammal-eating) killer whales, humpback whales, gray whales and minke whales. “This bill applies solely to endangered Southern Resident killer whales,” she said. “While we care deeply about Southern Residents and their recovery, viewing them is not material to our businesses.”
Researcher Monica Weiland of the Orca Behavior Institute (OBI) testified against ESB 5371.
“We support science-based regulations that are easy to understand and enforce and, most importantly, meaningful to the whales. Unfortunately, the 1,000-yard proposal is none of these things,” she said.
“Our recent research shows that having a small number of professional whale watch operators on scene reduces the number of rule violations by private vessels who would otherwise be unaware of the whales’ presence or what the proper viewing distances look like,” she said.
Weiland said OBI currently collects behavioral data on SRKWs from both in and on the water, in areas where shore viewing isn’t possible. “We do so under the current 300-yard regulations, but we would be unable to do our research at 1,000 yards,” she said. A NOAA permit to study an endangered species would be required, which she described as complicated process. “We feel our noninvasive observations don’t require us to do the close approaches allowed under permit,” she said.
But if the bill passes, anything closer than 1,000 yards would be deemed a “close approach” and need a permit, she said.
Enacting ESB 5731 into law will be easier than removing Snake River dams, cleaning up polluted shorelines and restoring spawning and rearing habitats. However, its effects may not be as significant.
“Money is the only thing to talk about here,” regarding those who profit from approaching the whales, Anderson said. “Just leave them alone.”
— Reported by Nancy DeVaux