Responsible, commercial whale watching both protects whales on the water and contributes to their recovery off the water.
Recent coverage of the deaths of young whales and recommendations by the governor’s task force have raised much-needed awareness of the state of southern resident killer whale health in the Salish Sea — along with misinformation about the effects whale-watching tours have on them.
I’ve studied the effects of vessel disturbance on killer whales for more than 35 years. When factoring in all the science around these issues, I am convinced that responsible, commercial whale watching both protects whales on the water and contributes to their recovery off the water.
In addition to acknowledging the lack of chinook salmon — which is agreed to be the leading cause behind our resident orca population’s recent decline — the task force recommended two different approaches to reducing vessel-noise impacts on the whales.
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The first was carefully vetted by a working group of experts, and called for specific actions to reduce or eliminate whale disturbance by changing vessel design and revising operating practices.
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The second was a proposed three-to-five-year moratorium on southern resident orca viewing by all boats in Puget Sound.
The question Gov. Jay Inslee now faces is which of these two approaches is best for the southern resident orcas.
My research has largely focused on how southern resident killer whales change their swimming patterns, eating patterns and stress levels around vessels. Professional whale watchers paid attention to these results and called on their ranks to take action, minimizing negative effects by their vessels on the orcas. Their operators have changed their best practices in response to the results of research, so that those who follow these practices no longer have a negative impact on whales.
An important science-based recommendation by the task force is a go-slow zone, which would apply to all small vessels and whale-watching vessels, following the orcas wherever they go. Given that a vessel’s speed is the main cause of noise disturbance for whales, this slow zone would cap noise exposure around each whale and minimize disruption of the whales’ search for food, increasing the volume of water they can search for salmon with echolocation.
An additional recommendation supported by commercial operators is a permit system, which would require them to assist with modeling and enforcing half-mile go-slow zones around the whales.
These recommendations will go a long way toward making the whales’ lives quieter, though they’ll still be exposed to noise from small vessels outside this go-slow zone. For the foreseeable future, vessels complying with the go-slow zone’s rules would expose whales to less noise than non-whale-watching vessels, as noise from vessels in the go-slow zone would be capped at a decibel level comparable to typical natural noise levels.
It’s clear to me that engaging the whale-watch industry in protection on the water and having them educate passengers will have a net positive effect on noise reduction. The go-slow zone, which is the task force’s strongest recommendation, is best implemented by having whale-watching vessels nearby to warn recreational vessels when to slow down — something the whale-watching industry has led for years.
Additionally, the fact that transient killer whales, humpbacks and gray whales in our waters are thriving highlights the fact that southern residents are struggling to obtain Chinook salmon. There’s an urgent need for more salmon, but the task force only made vague recommendations on increasing this food supply.
By educating hundreds of thousands of passengers, whale-watch operators can link passengers to recovery work, engaging them as citizen lobbyists for salmon and orca recovery.
Recognizing the role whale watchers could play in salmon recovery, I am dismayed by the task force’s proposed moratorium on vessel traffic around southern residents. Along with projects like dam removal, salmon and whale recovery are dependent on tens of thousands of small projects, and commercial whale watchers match passengers with these projects to ensure success.
I urge Gov. Inslee to follow the science and the carefully considered recommendations of the task force, and implement the aforementioned actions that will actually benefit the whales. Rather than suspending whale watching, the governor should partner with whale watchers to play a leading role in the whales’ recovery.
Correction: This Op-Ed, originally published on Dec. 11, 2018, was corrected on Dec. 13, 2018. A previous version implied that the Southern Resident Orca Task Force proposal for a three-to-five-year moratorium on orca-watching tours was voted on by fewer than a quarter of its members. The task force had discussed this option previously, and 33 of its 47 members voted Nov. 6 to approve the package of recommendations. Additionally, the Op-Ed implied the moratorium would be limited to “whale-watching tours,” when in fact the recommendation applies to all boats on Puget Sound.