Every orca birth is a sign of hope. Earlier this year, we celebrated the birth of a new baby orca in L pod, one of the three endangered southern resident pods. However, along with this exciting moment comes a renewed call to action. If the orcas are to recover, we must give this calf and its extended family the best chance at survival — a quiet Salish Sea where they can hunt for food undisturbed.
Orcas rely on sound to hunt, but it’s hard to hear in the Salish Sea. Underwater noise from the many ships, ferries and other vessels that traverse Washington’s waters interferes with orcas’ ability to communicate as well as to echolocate to find their preferred prey, Chinook salmon. At present, most stocks of Chinook in the region remain depleted, meaning orcas must spend more time and energy hunting for scarce food. A study commissioned by British Columbia’s Port of Vancouver noted that orcas in this area potentially lose up to 5½ hours of foraging time per day from May through September due to vessel noise. And new research indicates that mother orcas are the most vulnerable to vessel disturbance, making noise pollution especially dangerous for nursing and pregnant whales with high nutritional needs.
One key action for the Washington state Legislature, in addition to boosting salmon-recovery efforts, is to provide funding for Quiet Sound, a newly proposed program aimed at reducing ship noise and disturbance in the Salish Sea to benefit the orcas. The Quiet Sound program would alert commercial mariners when orcas are present so they can adjust their route or slow down, and it will seek innovations to help large commercial vessels and ferries become quieter.
We know from a vessel quieting program established by B.C.’s Port of Vancouver in 2014 — a model for Quiet Sound — that it can provide a win-win: producing meaningful changes for the orcas with little impact to the shipping industry. In 2019, 82% of large commercial ships participated in the Port of Vancouver’s voluntary ship slowdowns, which reduced underwater noise by half.
The Quiet Sound program already has a leg up in Washington, thanks to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell who, along with Democratic Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Adam Smith of Washington, championed a related provision in this year’s federal defense bill, which will bring valuable federal capacity and resources to aid Quiet Sound. The bill also instructs the Coast Guard to educate mariners about buffer zones aimed at keeping smaller boats from disrupting orcas. This latter directive is especially timely in light of new rules approved by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife that limit the viewing season and the number of commercial whale-watching boats, giving the orcas more uninterrupted time to find food.
State Sen. Liz Lovelett, Rep. Debra Lekanoff and others have helped elevate the Quiet Sound program in the Legislature, but there is still work to be done. While funding for Quiet Sound is included in the recently passed Senate budget, the current House budget does not allocate funding. As the state House of Representatives and Senate negotiate the final budget, we urge lawmakers to prioritize and include this funding. Our orcas are depending on it.
We need your help to urge the Legislature to ensure the Quiet Sound program has the necessary funding to launch this year. You can call the legislative hotline at 800-562-6000 to leave a message for your representatives.