NOAA report: Orcas still struggling, 3 primary factors to blame

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orcasSEATTLE — They are icons of the Northwest, but a decade-long study shows the orcas in the Puget Sound are still in trouble.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its research report Wednesday. Since the 1990s, the number of the endangered southern resident killer whales  has dropped from 99 to just 80.

NOAA’s research found three primary factors hurting the animals: pollution, a decline in their primary food source, Chinook salmon, and boat noise.

“It confirms the view that noise and disturbance is a significant factor that causes negative effects on the southern resident orca,” said Bruce Steadman, director of the Orca Relief Citizen’s Alliance.

Orca activists have fought for years to keep whale-watching boats and pleasure cruisers from getting too close to the whales.

In the past few years, NOAA has increased the distance boats must maintain from whales from 100 yards to 200 yards. Activists continue to push for a protected area, a 7-mile stretch on the west side of San Juan Island, where the orcas gather.

“I’m asking the fisheries service to work with us  to quickly and effectively work towards a protected area,” said Steadman.

But NOAA concedes that pressure from the  boating and fishing industry has put a stop to the idea of a protected area in the past.

“The comments we got about potential economic impacts, about the community level of buy-in for something like that was something we felt we needed to do some more work on,” said NOAA’s Lynne Barre.

Michael Harris, the director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, says whale-watch boats are being singled out by NOAA and that there is no evidence that those boats adversely affect whales, and that the whales are more spread out because they’re looking for a dwindling fish population.

“The only accomplishment NOAA can cite is going after the low-hanging fruit, the commercial whale-watch industry,” said Harris.



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