Orcas: A species on the brink

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SEATTLE — The federal government said Monday it will review the Endangered Species Act status of killer whales in the region as the result of an Endangered Species Act delisting petition by a California-based group and two California farmers. This comes as it appears the government is failing to do enough to protect the orcas.

For instance, on patrol with Washington state Fish and Wildlife officers off of San Juan Island, whale-watching boats appear to get too close to the orcas.

The officers say that because of budget cuts, they don’t have the resources to enforce regulations that protected the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

“Obviously, things are going to happen when we`re not around,” Zach Gaston of Fish and Wildlife said. “And if people know that we`re not out, they`re more inclined to bend the rules in their favor.”

In 1995, researchers counted 98 Southern Resident orcas. Now, there are only 85.

“We aren’t 50 years away from the problem,” said Mark Anderson, founder of Orca Relief, an organization fighting to save the killer whales.  “The problem is happening right now.”

Anderson said the country is at risk of losing them forever.

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

Government scientists say killer whales in the Pacific Northwest face three important threats: A decline in Chinook salmon, their primary food source; pollution; and the deafening underwater noise of pleasure boats and commercial whale-watching boats, which pursue the orcas all summer.

Research clearly shows that boat engines interfere with the whales’ ability to communicate and feed.

Jim Nollman has been contracted by the Navy to study whale communication. “It’s as if you were about to go to your garden, and find something to eat, and somebody had a spotlight in your face,” Nollman said of the engine noise.

Scientists say the noise from boat props is even more disruptive to the whales, because whales use clicks, whistles and calls to find food.

The responsibility for protecting the orcas falls squarely on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

Told that his agency is failing to protect the orcas, NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman said, “We’re certainly not failing. These animals are fully protected.”

They protected, NOAA said, by laws that were changed this year.  Under the law everyone in the water must stay 200 yards away from orcas; it had been 100 yards before. And boaters in the direct path of a whale must stay 400 yards away.

Activists fighting to save the whales call that a joke.

“You’ve got to remember these whales can hear things 20 miles away, could be 100 miles away,” Anderson said. “So if you move it (restriction) from 100 meters to 200 meters, you`re still running at it (the whale) at 40 knots with twin Mercs on the back, doesn’t matter.”

And, Anderson said, even those rules aren’t being enforced.

NOAA rarely has crews on the water running whale patrols.

But the agency reports it’s paying the state to do it, which is partially true. In 2011, NOAA paid the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife $47,000 to run enforcement patrols.  But this year, it only paid $6,600.

In 2008 and 2010, there was zero money paid to the state.

State wildlife officers are also responsible for enforcing commercial, tribal and recreational fishing laws. Without those federal dollars, they can`t spend time cracking down on boaters threatening the whales.

“Based on other things going on in the area, it`s very difficult to focus your time solely on marine mammal protection, Southern Resident orca whale protection,  without having that dedicated funding source and those dedicated hours,” Gaston said.

The multimillion-dollar whale watch industry isn`t shy about pushing the limits, getting their boats as close as possible to the orcas to give paying customers a good show.

Some head into Canadian waters where regulations allow the boats to get closer to the killer whales.

“The presence of an enforcement boat radically changes the behavior of the commercial whale watch operators,” Anderson said.

“I think we`d like to do more,” NOAA’s Gorman said.  “I mean, theoretically. it would great if we had an enforcement officer of some kind every 300 or 400 yards on a busy weekend, but that`s not practical.”

What is practical?

“What is practical is what we`re doing right now — partnering with the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife (and) partnering the Coast Guard to enforce the law by fining people, by citing them and fining them,” Gorman said.

The reality is that very few fines are being handed out. This year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a total of six citations. There have been only 17 written since 2008.

The fine for getting too close to the whales had been $1,025, but it was reduced this past summer to just $87.

“If more and more is shown that noise is the problem, then we ought to take stronger steps to ensure noise doesn`t do all the damage it`s apparently doing,” said former Environmental Protection Agency chief Bill Ruckelshaus.

Gov. Chris Gregoire named Ruckelshaus as chairman of the Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership – a community effort to restore and protect the Sound.

“Orcas are magnificent beasts and we`re the ones who are going to cause either their demise as a species or flourish in health,” Gregoire said. “So it`s up to us to apply our intelligence in such a way that the species has the chance of surviving. And to me it`s unconscionable that we wouldn’t do that.’

A few weeks ago, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife applied for a $1 million federal grant that would be spread over three years for orca protection patrols. It could be May or June until it’s known if that’s approved. But in the current tight budget environment, the chances appear slim.

Meanwhile, environmentalists had been pushing to sharply limit whale-watching operations to help the orca population recover. That generated too much opposition from whale-watch operators and the tourism industry in the islands.  They said it would put jobs at risk.

So, now they`ve come up with a plan that protects the whales without threatening the industry. It’s what’s called a “no-go zone” – a small area off the west side of San Juan Island, where the whales swim, feed and breed.

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  • buddy

    Maybe we should focus on cleaning up Puget Sound. I believe most orca fatalities in Puget Sound can be traced back to heavy metal and PCB contamination. The media should really look into these stories further before running these stories. The decibel levels of boat motors are dampened as they travel through water. An orca may be able to hear a boat miles away, but the whether that boat is loud enough to interfere with their hunting has never been proven. NOAA is faced with a very complicated and politically volatile problem in saving the orcas. Painting them as the bad guys here is counterproductive. Q13 maybe next time you could interview some local charter fishermen or whale watch boat captains instead of only the Save the Whales extremists you seem to favor.

  • andrew

    Yet another poorly researched and biased piece by Fox! The single biggest threat to the Resident Orcas is a lack of Salmon and in particular, Chinook Salmon. If we want to save the SRKW's we need to do more to increase wild Salmon in our local waters, everything else is irrelevant. However, NOAA does not have the political guts to do what is really necessary, a 5 year moratorium on Chinook Salmon. Instead they pick on boaters, that are an easy target, and in particular the Whale Watchers that educate thousands of people every year about the SRKW's. What has Mr. Anderson done recently, NOTHING! How does Mr. Anderson and others people pointing fingers at boaters, get to and from the Island? His comments smack of hypocrisy! I also laugh at the Navy's expert, the Navy is one of the worst offenders with their sonar testing and live firing exercises in the Salish Sea, or the coast of Washington & BC. Funny how nothing was mentioned about the death of L112, which had NOTHING to do with boats and everything to do with bombs off the west coast.

    We do need to do more for the SRKW's and that includes more funding for Salmon protection, clean up our local waters and more patrols to enforce existing laws. If you look at the last Soundwatch report the whale watching fleet counts for a very low % of the infractions, yet they are out there watching the whales more than anyone. The Fleet also assists the enforcement agencies, provides information to the science community on the location of the whales and provides funding each year that contributes to Salmon restoration or other notable environmental or community projects.

    We all need to act now and put pressure on the Govt to do more for Salmon Restoration. The SRKW's have been feeding in the local waters for decades, the actual boating activity around them over the last 10 years has decreased, not increased. The biggest threat they face is still a lack of food, not a bit of engine noise. The reporter and Mr. Anderson does not give these highly intelligent Marine Mammals enough credit! We Need to Save The Salmon and then we will SAVE the SRKW's.

  • Dave

    What if we placed a lofty tax on whale watching companies to directly fund both salmon conservation and the reduction of Sound contaminants/pollution? That would help cut down on two of the three threats facing orcas; for the third (engine noise), I propose we make tourists row all whale watching boats. We would both reduce engine noise and cull the exorbitant amount of weak tourists that plague our regal waterways.

    • Angry Minnesotan

      Most whale watching companies already donate thousands if not more each year to help the restoration of salmon. As for engine noise, are you then also going to shut down all shipping through the straights of Georgia, Rosario straight an all other major deep draft shipping lanes that come into contact with regular orca feeding, breeding, and traveling zones? If engine noise is a problem then why are those larger and much louder vessels not addressed?

      This entire “editorial” is an attack on an industry that both loves and cares for the SRKW’s. Please tell me how much money any of you have put toward restoring salmon and their spawning habitats? This will allow their population to grow, which in turn will allow the orca’s to also grow in population. The reason they don’t over read is because they don’t have food!!! Not because of noise or any other reason…. Would you have another kid if you could barely raise one?

      Another thing with noise. Listen to the hydrophones in the area for yourselves and tell me how loud you think boats are. On more than one occasion I can clearly hear the orcas over all boat and other aquatic noise…. You act like they whisper under the water… They are however quite loud when they want to be.

      Q13 I ask you, where did you research for this? Everything I have read has seemed like a humongous lie thrown together only to get ratings by aggrivating locals. Again I ask if the whale watch industry goes away, are you gonna fund to help restore salmon? How much have you put towards it so far…. Last I checked none, zip, el zilcho…. Pathetic…. You sit there and cast hate upon people who only wish to educate the world of such beautiful animals in order to protect their future. You write lies that are obvious to even a toddler. You said you saw boats in violation an in way to close to whales. Let me ask you. How long have you been an avid boater? You must be on the water day after day if you can sit over 500 yards away and tell when a boat is within 200yds of a whale. Do you even know the difference of distances on water compared to on land. No you just assume that because what you see seems to close it is. Did you have any range finders? Or maybe satellite imagery to back any of this up? No? Huh I figured as much.

      As for going to Canada. You act like companies can force the whales into Canadian water so they can get closer views. Wrong, again… If whales are in Canada boats operate by Canadian regulations, this means American and Canadian boats. The companies go where the whale are because, incase you didn’t know it but that is the point of whale watching. You would know that if you went to where the story was and actually did research instead of listening to some angry old granola’s that wish only for a minute of fame and glory…. Tell me what have any of these activists groups done to help whales besides spend tons of money on ads against the whale watching industry, money that could of been used to help the whales. Wow genious!!!!

      Lastly I thought news was supposed to be biased. This story is so one sided and rotten it makes me sick. You missed the real issues completely and focused on only one thing. It is clear to me your hatred for such a great industry as whale watching. It is also clear that you are willing to sacrifice all integrity to cast your hatred to the masses. Edward R. Murral would be rolling in his grave had he seen this dispicable act of closed minded stupidity.

      Next time you do a story focus on the truth, and the important issues not just your blind agenda of spewing lies to push the masses your direction. You are by far the worst news group I have ever come across and I will no longer watch your programming as I now know it is all unrest arched opinions given to you by those in power.

      Again absolutely appualing, you should all be ashamed of yourselves!!!!

    • Angry Minnesotan

      You idiot narrow minded activists just keep running your mouth without doing any research on the subject…. Good job….

  • Calvin Hill

    Why take them off the endangered list when their population is going down? I'm suspecting if they let the farmers have their way, we'll only be seeing these orcas in photos.

  • Lecia A. Duque

    There has been supported studies about how whales or orcas gets stuck in the shore due to ship noise and sonar deployment. This creates havoc on their sense of navigation and inter-communication with their family.

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