Images of Tahlequah carrying her dead calf broke the hearts of people worldwide. This profound display of a mother’s grief spoke to a deeper issue, especially to those of us who live on the Salish Sea. We are witnessing the destruction of an ecosystem and the potential extinction of a unique, intelligent species—the Southern Resident Killer Whales.
Governor Inslee’s orca task force has issued final recommendations, including a three-to-five year moratorium on commercial whale watching of the SRKWs. We wholeheartedly support this recommendation and believe it should go even further and include research and recreational vessels. The intention of the moratorium is to provide an urgently needed opportunity for recovery of this critically endangered species—and it should last until the resident orca population is healthy and stable.
Issues such as dwindling food supply and contaminants in our waters must and will be addressed, but are long-term solutions. Over 50 studies confirm that underwater vessel noise interferes with the SRKW’s ability to hunt successfully. Tanker traffic in Haro Strait has a big impact, but tankers are intermittent. There is no longer any excuse for the SRKWs to be pursued and surrounded from dawn till dusk by whale watching, research and recreational vessels.
In a recent interview, Tim Ragen, Ph.D., former Executive Director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, said, “It seems completely unreasonable that anyone would insist on vessel-based whale watching when the best available evidence indicates that vessel noise and disturbance are contributing to the population’s decline.” He points out that education about the SRKW population can be achieved using the extensive information already available.
SRKWs are unique in the world. These highly intelligent creatures are capable of speaking multiple dialects and even using cross-species communication. They have a vastly enlarged limbic system and relatively larger number of spindle cells that indicates a deeply complex form of intelligence and emotional life. Orca whales feel empathy, love and grief and have profound family bonds. How can we justify exploiting them?
The whale watching industry garners tens of millions of dollars annually from the SRKWs. It is incomprehensible that any profit should legally be gained from a critically endangered species, but in San Juan County, whale watching is globally advertised and visitors are “guaranteed” sightings. The industry is completely unregulated and distance guidelines are not enforced. While some whale watch operators are conscientious, others have been witnessed herding whales, positioning themselves repeatedly in the orca’s path, and otherwise interfering with their ability to hunt successfully.
Researchers and naturalists add to the problem. The Center for Whale Research lists as its main goal during an encounter to “photograph every whale present from both the left and right side.” These research boats go out multiple times a week. How many pictures of whales do we need? National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessels also follow the orca, hoping to add to the “pursuit of knowledge.” A healthy young male died a painful death in 2016 from an infected dart NOAA had shot into its back. NOAA now plans to dart tag (with suction cups) the SRKWs in order to track their nighttime behavior.
It is time to leave the whales alone. It is our responsibility to give these magnificent creatures every possible chance to return from the brink of extinction. We need to make immediate and meaningful changes to restore the Salish Sea to the biologically rich and healthy environment that the SRKWs require. We believe that a moratorium on all vessels, commercial or otherwise, following or in any way engaging with the southern resident orca is an essential part of this effort.