With three pregnant J pod orcas in local waters, boaters are being asked to keep their distance and commercial tour operators are being told to stay at least a nautical half-mile from the whales.
The intention of the rule is to help the pregnant whales, J36, J37 and J19, carry their pregnancies to full terms.
Pregnancies are common among the southern resident orca families but successful live births are all too rare. In one study, nearly 70% of pregnancies among the southern residents failed. Pregnancy failure has been tied to nutritional stress.
Giving the orcas more space is intended to help them get the food they need. Pregnant orcas need more food, especially toward the end of their gestation when their calorie requirements go up by 25%. Lactating moms need even more.
Orcas use sound to hunt, and noise and disturbance by boats can mask the sounds they need to hear and interrupt their hunts.
A key finding from research that National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Fisheries published earlier this year indicated the effects of vessel noise are especially prominent for females, which often give up foraging when boats approach within 400 yards.
“We need to work together to give these pregnant whales every chance of success,” said Scott Rumsey, deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “The more they can forage undisturbed, the better their odds of contributing to the population.”
The southern resident orca families have likely just sustained a recent loss, K21, the oldest of the southern resident males. He was seen severely emaciated on July 29 and has not been seen since. He is presumed dead, bringing the total population of the endangered southern residents to only 74. Another orca baby is also ailing.
The department urged all boaters follow Be Whale Wise guidelines. State law requires boats to:
- Stay 300 yards from southern resident orcas on either side
- Stay 400 yards out of southern resident orcas’ path — in front and behind the whales
- Go slowly (under 7 knots) within a half-mile of southern resident orcas
- Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.
Boats should stay 100 yards from all other marine mammals (such as humpback whales, gray whales, sea lions and seals).
“We’ve got many people looking at the science to understand where we can continue to improve the odds for this population,” said Kelly Susewind, WDFW director. “Now that we’ve learned of multiple pregnancies among the Southern Residents and the impact that boats can have on new mothers, we really need everyone to follow Be Whale Wise regulations in support of these endangered whales’ survival.”