With news of multiple pregnancies among the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries, whale watch leaders, and Soundwatch are calling for boaters to steer clear of the whales and give them extra space on the water at this critical time.
”The whales, for the first time in a couple years, are very present, unfortunately we’re having a lot of people get too close to orcas within these regulated boundaries,” said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Police Captain Alan Myers said. “That bubble of protection is extremely important in order to keep boaters either intentionally or unintentionally from interfering with these animals while they feed, forage, and transit Washington’s waters.”
A photogrammetry team from SR3 and Southall Environmental Associates last month documented pregnancies in all three Southern Resident pods. While this is promising news, research has shown that many Southern Resident pregnancies fail or the calves do not survive beyond their first year.
While the lack of sufficient chinook salmon prey is a threat to the whale population, vessel traffic can interrupt echolocation clicks the whales use to track and capture fish. In the presence of vessel traffic, the whales have been observed by researchers spending less time foraging and more time traveling. Research has also found that the speed of vessels, more so than their size, is the biggest factor in determining how much noise they produce.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed new killer whale viewing regulations into law last year requiring vessels to stay at least 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales and at least 400 yards out of their path or behind the whales. Vessels must also reduce their speed to seven knots within a half-mile of a Southern Resident killer whale.
The Pacific Whale Watch Association has also developed science-based guidelines to give the whales space and minimize impacts. For example, PWWA adopted a speed limit before it was required, given the relationship to noise, said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, Communications Director for the PWWA.
“If you’re out in your boat and you see a whale watch vessel traveling slowly, or giving certain whales extra space, please slow down or go around,” Balcomb-Bartok says. PWWA vessels often serve as a visual cue that whales or other wildlife are probably somewhere in the vicinity, and their knowledgeable crews model proper whale watching practices, he says. “Our naturalists cannot only tell whales apart, they can often tell you the whale’s life history, their family trees, and provide a brief peek into the mysterious lives of whales.”
Boaters are encouraged to watch for the Whale Warning Flag, an optional tool from the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, that lets others know that there might be whales nearby. If you see the flag, slow down and follow guidelines.
“Transient killer whales are also found in Washington waters, so if boaters cannot identify which killer whales they are seeing, they should be cautious and follow the rules for residents,” said Lynne Barre, Branch Chief for Protected Resources in NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region.
For the latest details on regulations and guidelines, visit BeWhaleWise.org, which includes illustrations explaining the latest changes. Boaters can download a brochure before heading out on the water or keep an eye out for the Soundwatch Boater Education Program.
“An important part of our mission is to educate the boaters of the Salish Sea on the updated regulations for Southern Resident Killer Whales,” said Alanna Frayne, Soundwatch Program Coordinator at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. “This is crucial not only to their health but also their recovery, as the pregnant whales will be especially vulnerable to disturbances.”
More than 400 people responded in October to a request by NOAA Fisheries for comments on vessel regulations. NOAA Fisheries is now considering that input, new information available, and the effectiveness of existing regulations to determine whether and how the agency might update Federal regulations. The agency gained additional insight from the Governor’s Orca Task Force and its recommendations regarding vessels. NOAA Fisheries is also a partner on The Whale Trail, a series of land-based sites to view whales from shore.
“By staying alert, going slow, and giving these whales extra space during this critical time, boaters can quiet the waters so the pregnant whales can find food,” said Julie Watson, WDFW killer whale policy lead.