Lawsuit: 'Whale Protection Zone' would limit vessel noise, disturbance near San Juan Island

SEATTLE— Conservation groups today August 1, 2018 sent a notice of intent to sue the Trump administration   for failing to protect critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales from boat traffic and noise in a key foraging area near Washington’s San Juan Island. The proposed “whale protection zone” could help save an iconic orca species that is down to just 75 individuals and facing extinction.

Boaters watching whales in the Salish Sea. NOAA photo

In 2016 the Center for Biological Diversity and Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to establish the 10-square-mile zone in the Salish Sea’s Haro Strait, a step that would limit vessel speeds and other activities. That petition was ignored, and since then eight more Southern resident orcas have perished. Today the groups gave the administration 30 days to respond.

“West Coast orcas are dying out right in front of our eyes while the Trump administration ignores their plight,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director at the Center. “We need swift protections to prevent their extinction.”

This week’s heartbreaking images of orca mother J35, also known as Tahlequah, pushing her dead calf for almost a week highlighted their plight. Southern Residents are rapidly declining because of depleted chinook salmon runs, vessel noise and traffic in key foraging areas, water pollution and other threats.

The impact of motor-boat noise in their waters blocks the ability of the Southern Residents to use their echo-location to locate dwindling food resources. The whale-protection zone would quickly and inexpensively give these orcas more quiet for foraging, communicating, resting and navigating. The proposal seeks to restrict vessels in the whale protection zone when killer whales congregate in the area from April 1 to Sept. 30.

“We have long been concerned about vessel noise and disturbance in the heart of Southern Resident habitat. This action could yield huge benefits at a critical time when these orcas really need our help,” said Janet Thomas with Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance. “Officials need to stop stalling and create this whale-protection zone.”

 

5 comments

  • Mark Anderson
    Mark Anderson Sunday, 05 August 2018 12:25 Comment Link

    In 1997 we determined that starvation would lead to a population crash in SRKWs, we informed the Whale Museum staff and the naturalist community at the annual fall debrief, and this is exactly what happened over the next five years: we lost 17% of the population. At that time, the locals were telling the media that these were "urban whales" well adapted to boats, etc, and that therefore they were not at risk. Clearly, that was in error.

    Soon after, we asked Friday Harbor Labs to help find the best marine mammal experts at UW. Glenn von Blaricom and Carlos Alvarez (his grad student) did the first scientific study on resident Orca mortality causes, finding that, "when Chinook counts are low, the presence of motorized craft leads to increased mortality." In the next few years, about 50 peer - reviewed publications by an international team of scientists pinpointed the details of this finding, confirming the conclusion, and elucidating the reasons boats contribute to resident Orca starvation. Prime among these were a forced increase of 17% in food needed by the whales when motorized boats were present, linked to a reduction in sonar efficiency (how they catch fish) by up to 93%. When boats are around, they need more food and get less. And they starve.

    During this period, the local "experts" had been forced to shift to an explanation from "the whales are safe" to "why are they dying?" - and for ten years or so, they told everyone that the whales were being killed by PCBs, even though these were declining in the waters and the whales' bodies, even as death rates mounted.

    About that time, almost all of the whale biologists in the NW met at the Labs, and came to the unanimous and historic conclusion that the whales were dying of starvation. It is worth noting that no mammal has ever died of starvation as a result of PCBs.

    For the next decade or so, the locals told everyone that the whales were indeed dying of starvation, but the only answer would be to take down the Snake River dams. In other words, they refused to address the most direct and obvious cause of whale death: when the Chinook count is low, the presence of motorized boats is a direct cause of starvation.

    Now, we're running out of time, if indeed it is not already too late. The time for PR-driven money-making is over; the time for real action on the whales' behalf is here. We need an IMMEDIATE halt to motorized commercial whale watching in all resident Orca foraging areas. We need a Whale Protection Zone where the fish are, where the whales historically feed, mate, rest, and socialize; and we need it NOW.

    For that reason, Orca Relief Citizens Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity have filed a Letter of Notice with the federal government, notifying them that we will bring suit within 30 days if they do not take immediate action on preserving this population by creating this WPZ.

    Five fellow NGOs in Canada have just filed a nearly identical petition with their government, espousing our WPZ here and adding more in BC waters, recognizing that whales have no borders.

    We must do all of the right things now, and not just some of them. We appreciate the strong support of the community in San Juan County, and the State of Washington, none of whom want to see the Orca disappear. The commercial, and spiritual damage of this impending loss far outweighs the personal needs and continued insistence of a few boat operators to drive this population down to zero.

    Let's do what's right, and do it now.

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  • Salish siren
    Salish siren Friday, 03 August 2018 21:20 Comment Link

    Vessel noise has NOTHING to do with this problem....open your eyes and look past what you can just see from the beach!

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  • FH resident
    FH resident Wednesday, 01 August 2018 16:52 Comment Link

    Wouldn’t this possibly increase noise since all motorized boats not engaged in watching whales would try to increase their speed to get around a 1 mile buffer off the shore that they used to be able to drive through. And since there is not a physical barrier in haro strait, that increased noise plus any increased shipping traffic would still be heard underwater. Increased speeds would mean increased noise since those two are directly correlated. It seems like the results from this will be similar to the last time this group proposed whale watching rule changes which resulted in the current parallel viewing schema that recent research has shown has increased noise and exhaust per boat in the vicinty of whales. And since the SRKWs spend less than 1% of their time in this 10 mi square area that is proposed for this WPZ it may be the case that this proposal’s negative impacts outweigh the slim chance that there will be any positive impacts.

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  • True Whale Watcher
    True Whale Watcher Wednesday, 01 August 2018 16:18 Comment Link

    There is already a "whale protection zone" along the west side of San Juan, and has been in place more than a decade. Orca Relief would have you believe that it's not enough, but honestly, the zone has never really had much of an enforcement presence. WDFW, NOAA, and Soundwatch have tried to make this zone work, but they don't have the budgets to make it happen. The zone, which is called The Voluntary No Go Zone, starts at Eagle Point and is 1/4 of a mile from shore. At Lime Kiln State Park, the zone bumps out to 1/2 mile, and then back to 1/4 mile the rest of the way up to Kellett Bluff. The only positive suggestion by Orca Relief for their zone? It has a way cooler name "Whale Protection Zone." This WPZ also has not been approved by any government agency, nor has it received any endorsement from US Coast Guard. Part of the proposed zone would actually put boaters extremely close to the Traffic Separation Zones used by shipping traffic.

    If Orca Relief really wants to help the Southern Resident Killer Whales, they should help with the NUMBER ONE issue that we should address: Salmon habitat restoration and increasing salmon stocks. If you look at the other eco-type of orca that utilizes this exact same ecosystem, you would see a completely different story. The Bigg's Killer whales, also called "Transients" are thriving in this ecosystem. The last 3 years, Bigg's Killer whales have had a 5% growth rate. Their calves are not only surviving, but are robust looking. They also encounter the same environmental factors the residents do, with one difference--they have a readily available food source.

    Blaming the whale watch industry, which it might interest readers is the most regulated group of vessels in the Salish Sea when it comes to whales. Whale watch boats not only adhere to the Voluntary No Go Zone, they maintain 200 yards from whales at all times. When within 1 kilometer of whales, whale watch vessels slow down to 7 knots or less. Whale watch boats are also required to stay on the off-shore side of whales, which allows the whales to utilize the shorelines as part of their hunting strategy.

    Recently, people are also pointing at culling harbor seals and sea lions. This also will not fix the problems. They are just scapegoats. Seals and sea lions do not prey only on salmon. They also eat other types of fish and even enjoy octopus.

    For more than a decade, many people have been begging our governments--from county to state to federal to please get busy restoring salmon habitat. We have seen the immediate returns of salmon on the Elwha river when those dams came down. For more than 5 years, we've begged the government to sign off on removing the 4 lower Snake River Dams, which would open up 93,000,000 acres of spawning area that feeds the Columbia River Basin. We've asked our state government to look at decreasing commercial salmon fishing of endangered chinook salmon.

    So let's stop muddying the waters (so to speak) and focus on what will actually give the Southern Resident Killer Whales real and meaningful help--fish. As Ken Balcomb has been saying for years--"No Fish, No Blackfish."

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  • We care
    We care Wednesday, 01 August 2018 15:10 Comment Link

    The law clearly states: Illegal to pursue or harass endangered whales. Whale watch boats do both.

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