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Icon of the Pacific Northwest: The killer whales

The number of orcas in the Southern Resident population, which includes those in the Puget Sound region, has been declining. The issue of how best to protect them is an ongoing debate.

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LOS ANGELES — State Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica, Calif., introduced a bill Friday that would ban killer whales at theme parks.

orcasANDERSON ISLAND, Wash. — A viewer reported that two pods of killer whales approached a friend’s boat on the east side of Anderson Island in the southern Puget Sound Wednesday.

According to viewer Bob Lyden, these photos were taken by Larry and Martin Schuler of Anderson Island, who live above the area where the orcas were seen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Editor’s Note: Make your feelings known about the Whale Protection Zone by contacting NOAA with an email to ORCA.PLAN@NOAA.GOV 

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. — There’s a new push to save the endangered Southern Resident killer whales in the Puget Sound.

“We are in critical danger of losing these orcas altogether,” said Ken Balcomb, who is with the Center for Whale Research.  Balcomb’s job is to count the number of orcas in the area, and it’s the government that pays him.

In 1995, there were 98 whales, but new numbers show that this summer there were only 82 — that’s a 17 percent drop in 18 years.

Government scientists said the endangered orcas face three threats:

  • A drop in chinook salmon, which is their primary food source;
  • Pollution;
  • Increased noise on the water from boats.

The boat noise interferes with a whale’s acoustics, damaging their ability to communicate and feed.

Mark Anderson, founder of Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance, an organization that fights to save the whales, said we’re at risk of losing the resident orcas.

“Could it happen? That’s the wrong question. Is it happening? It’s happening right now. Can we stop it? Maybe,” Anderson said.

He points to Orca Relief’s new research, which shows a dangerous decline in breeding age females. Their numbers are down 24 percent since 2004. Even more concerning is that the next generation of females able to reproduce have seen their numbers decline 39 percent since 2000.

Orca Relief is pushing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to force boaters who threaten the whales to back off in certain areas. It’s called a “Whale Protection Zone” or a “No Go Zone.” It would ban whale watch operators within a half-mile of the coast off the west side of San Juan Island — roughly a 6.2-mile stretch from Mitchell Bay to Eagle Point.

“We have to find those things we can do easily — relatively quickly — to enable them to have some chance of recovering,“ Bruce Stedman, executive director of Orca Relief, said.

The government implemented stronger laws last year, ordering boaters to stay 200 yards away from orcas, double the previous distance.   Still, problems persist.  Scientists tracking the whales found the average orca encounters 76 boats per day. Boaters are getting too close and breaking the law.

“Whales appear to be harassed by people in boats,” Eric Eisenhardt of Soundwatch, a group that’s on the water tracking the violators, said.

Soundwatch found that last year, private boaters committed 63 percent of the violations while commercial whale watch boats were responsible for 27 percent.

Everyone agrees there’s a lack of enforcement.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Russ Mullins said, “Successful presence on the water basically boils down to funding, and it can be a constant battle year after year.”

Eisenhardt is quick to add there is an issue in that “there really is no consequence for breaking the law — people start figuring that out.”

This past summer, the state was awarded a federal three-year, $1.2 million grant for orca protection. Those monies will pay for a full-time officer dedicated to the whales. It will also pay for extra patrols, including 50 additional 10-hour days on the water each summer.

Last year, NOAA considered a No Go Zone, banning all boats off the west side of San Juan Island as part of the tougher restrictions. But the government agency tabled it, after getting pushback from the fishing industry, kayaking tours and whale watch operators. They claimed such measures would cost millions and put a lot of people out of work.

“The operators are not inclined to push the rules,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, who added that a Whale Protection Zone unfairly targets one industry that’s critical to the local economy.

John Aschoff, a member of the San Juan Marine Resources Committee, agrees.

“We have to think through very carefully what the solutions are that are going to improve the situations for the whales and not have tremendous economic effects on the islands.”

It’s part of the reason why Orca Relief has scaled back its proposal to only include the whale watch operators.

“Kayakers can do whatever they want. Anglers can do whatever they want. Pleasure boaters can do whatever they want. The only group affected here are the commercial whale watch operators, because they’re the primary source of the problem,” Anderson said.

But Harris countered, “The last thing they (commercial whale watch operators) want to do is be part of the problem — they’re not.”

But when he was asked why the six-mile line of the coast that would be defined as a No Go Zone — a relatively small sliver of the vast Sound coastline — would be too much to give up to save the orcas, he insisted it wasn’t necessary to protect the whales.

“It’s not needed. And it hits the stakeholders, the commercial whale watch operators really, really hard,“ Harris said.

The final decision falls on the federal government.

“It’s definitely something worth consideration, and that’s what we’ve committed to do — to think about it, ” Lynne Barre, NOAA’s biologist overseeing the Marine Mammal Program in the Pacific Northwest, said.

We pressed Gov. Jay Inslee and Congressman Rick Larsen (the San Juan islands are in his district). Neither would take a stand on the No-Go Zone. Instead, they’re both pushing for better enforcement and education.

There are a lot of opinions surrounding how to best protect and save the orcas, and NOAA wants to hear from you. You can contact NOAA directly about the issue by sending an email to: orca.plan@noaa.gov.

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FRIDAY HARBOR — There’s a new push to save the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales in the Puget Sound.

“We are in critical danger of losing these orcas altogether,” said Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research.  The government pays him to count the orcas.

In 1995, there were 98 whales. New numbers show this summer, we are down to 82, a 17 percent drop in 18 years.

According to government scientists, one of the things putting the orcas at risk are boats getting too close.  Mark Anderson, the founder of Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance, an organization fighting to save the whales, says we’re at risk of losing the resident orcas.

“Could it happen? That’s the wrong question.  Is it happening? It’s happening right now.  Can we stop it?  Maybe,” Anderson sasid.

FS Species on the Brink 10pmOrca Relief is now pushing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to force  boaters who threaten the whales to back off in certain restricted areas. It’s called a “Whale Protection Zone” or a “No Go Zone.” It would ban whale watch operators within a half-mile of the coast off the west side of San Juan Island.  It’s a roughly 6.2-mile stretch from Mitchell Bay to Eagle Point.

The commercial whale watch operators say a no-go zone is no fair.

“The operators are not inclined to push the rules,” said Michael Harris, the Executive Director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. He said the “Whale Protection Zone” unfairly targets one industry that’s critical to the local economy. It’s a battle to save the whales, but some argue, at the cost of people’s jobs.

Matt Lorch has a closer look at a “Species on the Brink.”  Watch his special report tonight on Q13 FOX News at 10.

Local News
08/02/13

Orcas still an endangered species

orca5SEATTLE — The NOAA’s Fisheries Service announced Friday that it rejected a call from a consortium of farmers in California’s Central Valley to remove Puget Sound’s killer whales from protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The group rejected a proposal by two farm groups to de-list the killer whales, known officially as Southern Residents. The groups claimed the whales should have never been listed because they are a part of the much larger killer whale population throughout the Pacific Ocean.

Michael Harris, the Executive Director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, called NOAA’s decision to keep the orcas listed under the Endangered Species Act the right decision.

“Our operators empathize with these California farmers, who like us have been asked to make sacrifices to the way they do business to support orca recovery,” Harris said. “But whale watch operators are arguably the stakeholers most impacted by these federal regulations, and yet for over a decade now have been conspicuously supportive of the listing of the orcas and taking the strongest possible actions to protect and restore the population.”

The population of the southern group has always been small, with a permanent population currently standing at 82. Scientists attribute depleted prey resources, particularly Chinook salmon, as the primary problem facing the orcas, the PWWA said.

 

 

 

Local News
07/18/13

Feds earmark money to protect orcas

orcaOLYMPIA — If whales could smile, they’d be happy to hear the news: New federal funding has been approved to help protect the Orcas that make Puget Sound their home.

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed that more federal dollars have been approved under the Endangered Species Act to help protect the Southern Resident Orcas that live in our area annually from May to September.

Sgt. Russ Mullins, with the department, said the federal grant will allow a two-pronged approach to help the whales. One will be through enforcement and educating boaters in operating their boats around whales. More money will also add more enforcement officers, to allow them to spend more time on the water.

“It’s estimated that almost 90 percent off all violations… happen with pleasure boaters, most of whom are probably well-intentioned but just inexperienced in operating their boats around whales,” Brian Goodremont, President of the Pacific Whale Watch Association said.

SEATTLE — Springer the killer whale, once orphaned and then rescued with human intervention, is back with a calf of her own.

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Photo: Graeme Ellis, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The orca was seen last Thursday, July 4, off the central coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, with a baby.

Researchers confirmed on Monday that Springer is a new mother.

Springer, also known as A73, was in 2002 the subject of what is believed to have been the first-ever successful rescue and repatriation of an orca.

In January 2002, the orphaned orca was found sick and alone in the congested ferry lanes off West Seattle, some 250 miles from her home waters of Johnstone Strait, British Columbia.

Her plight became top story in the local media, and soon an intense debate raged about what to do with the wayward whale.

Some activists wanted to leave her alone, hoping that somehow she`d find her way home.

But other groups, including OrcaLab, the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation and Orca Conservancy, successfully persuaded NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries to directly intervene, capture the orca and return her to her family in Canada.

Another key supporter of the Springer rescue was the Whale Watch Association Northwest, now known as the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

That summer, Springer was corralled in Puget Sound, brought to a sea pen site in Manchester, Wash., to undergo medical tests, and then once cleared of any communicable diseases, put onto a 144-foot catamaran and taken to Johnstone Strait.

The next day, Springer was released into her natal pod, and after a few days and with the help of her extended orca family, she was back to being a wild whale again.

“It’s been 11 years since her release back to her home waters and her story continues,” said Helena Symonds of OrcaLab, which hosted the Springer effort on Hanson Island, Canada, and was a key operational lead on her repatriation.

“This is great news given all she went through as an orphaned calf, her rescue in Seattle and her successful release back to the wild,” said Dr. John Ford of Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “Let’s hope both she and her calf continue to thrive.”

Researchers will be watching Springer’s calf. It’s estimated that some 40 percent of newborn resident orcas in the Pacific Northwest don’t survive their first year.

orca5PUGET SOUND — A pod of orcas that often call the Puget Sound their summer home returned early Wednesday, Orcanetwork.org reported.

According to the Orca locating site, the 27-member J Pod was spotted off the coast of Henry Island near Friday Harbor, Wash. The pod had been absent from the Puget Sound for about 70 days.

Part of a clan of Orcas known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales, the orcas are the only killer whale species listed under the Endangered Species Act. The pod is commonly referred to as the Orcas of the Salish Sea. Little is known about their range of movements during the winter months.

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