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Profits or protection? Killer whales in the San Juan Islands

  • Written by Sharon Kivisto

It all boils down to which number is more important - 74 whales or a $200 million whale watching industry.

NOAA photo 

The killer whales in  J, K and L pods are suffering from a lack of chinook salmon. The presence of boats makes foraging for fish more difficult for them. A moratorium on whale watching is one step that could be taken to help the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population. It would help the orcas, while work on breaching the dams on the Snake River and cleaning up the Salish Sea is underway. 

Proponents of the whale watching industry say it provides education and creates bonds between the public and the whales. Ironically, this is the same argument that SeaWorld used to justify its Shamu shows. 

The numbers reveal the impact of the industry on the whales and on the economy. It's up to the public to decide what numbers are more important.

A 2015 peer-reviewed study by former University of Washington Professor William Beyers determined that the Pacific Whale Watch Association generated $144 million USD in economic impact annually to Washington and British Columbia. His work was the first-ever transboundary study of the industry.  According to Beyers, it was growing at approximately  8.3% a year at that time. 

Map showing where PWWA members are located. 

According to experts, the members of the PWWA conduct more than 14,000 trips with about half a million passengers per year. The total economic impact is estimated to be approaching $200 million.  There are about 100 vessels in the fleet. Not all whale watching businesses belong to the PWWA.

In 2017, there were 37,000 sales to whale watch boats based at the Port of Friday Harbor and 36,000 sales at the port for trips on the Victoria Clipper. Total sales were $3.4 million in 2017 with a total of $315,000 collected in sales tax.


The Center for Whale Research receives money from the whale watching industry. In a phone interview last week, researcher Ken Balcomb said he had just received a check for $10,000 (Canadian) from British Columbia whale watching businesses. He said he won't know the amounts from other members of PWWA until after the season ends. Some of the U.S. whale watching companies donate a $1 for every passenger they have. Balcomb insists the noise from whale watch boats is not a problem. 

From PWWA website: PWWA is also a longtime supporter of The Center for Whale Research and the important work Ken Balcomb and his team do to help recover the region's federally protected Southern Resident Community of orcas.

NOAA contracts with CWR for an annual census of the SRKW population.

San Juan County charges launch fees for kayaks leaving from San Juan County Park south of Lime Kiln Point State Park. While every kayaker is not necessarily going whale watching, the figures were $78,000 in 2017 and $87,800 in 2016.

The impact of  boats on the federally endangered SRKW population is detailed in dozens of studies. 

From a peer-reviewed study - The Relationship between Vessel Traffic and Noise Levels Received by Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) - published in December 2015 on PLOS.org.

SRKW utilize calls, clicks, and whistles for navigation, communication, and foraging. Each of the J, K, and L pods (family group) has a distinctive call repertoire and therefore SRKW likely use these vocalizations for group and possibly individual identification. Acoustic communication among SRKW individuals is important for group cohesion, cooperative foraging, and social behavior that may involve reproduction. Echolocation involves the production of sounds and use of the resulting echo returns to perceive the environment.

Echolocation is the primary foraging tool for SRKW. SRKW specialize on many depleted stocks of salmonid species, so any anthropogenic factor that may limit foraging efficiency could negatively impact the SRKW population.

SRKW are known to alter their behavioral states in the presence of vessels. Increased environmental noise also leads to vocal modification by SRKW.

The orcas expend more energy socializing when the whale watching boats are around.

In the presence of boats, they spend less time foraging and more time traveling.

From NOAA's report: Southern Resident Killer Whales 10 Years of Research and Conservation:

Demonstrates that killer whales spend a greater proportion of time traveling and less time foraging in the presence of vessels, including kayaks.

Show that Southern Residents modify their behavior by increasing surface activity (breaches, tail slaps, and pectoral fin slaps) and swimming in more erratic paths when vessels are close.

Increase the amplitude (loudness) of their calls when noise levels in their environment are high. 



  • Claudia Wednesday, 03 October 2018 20:33 Comment Link Report

    Thank you, Jean Behnke, for speaking the truth.

  • Mike Conner Thursday, 20 September 2018 05:17 Comment Link Report

    Thank you Sharon Koivisto for this article. Too often, the Whale Watch Industry is omitted from the list of activities which harm the whales, yet these are the boats in closest proximity to the whales. I have seen many truly disgusting scenes where a handful of whales is followed, leapfrogged, harassed by a large fleet of boats. If only the populations of J K and L pods could keep pace with the growth of the Whale Watch fleet! Sadly, the whales are diminishing as the number of boats and amount of horsepower surrounding them increases.
    I think it is past the time for compromises and limited measures. Give the whales some peace. I support a moratorium on vessel based whale watching in 2019.

  • Cher Renke Tuesday, 18 September 2018 15:08 Comment Link Report

    I have always hoped for a lottery system... or just a more regulated system I guess.
    Only a certain number of boats at a time... certain hours... certain time frames.
    For an example, I once went on a Grizzly Tour in Canada. British Columbia does do lottery systems, and permits for eco tourism in certain areas. I don't want to quote anything... it's been a few years. But just as an example...
    Only one Tour Operator at a time in the are... with only 6-8 individuals at ta time... and they can only sit there observing for 2 hours. Please don't quote me on exact laws.
    But just to show the "just" of it.
    If there was a way maybe for the Whale Watch companies to be regulated that way?
    I do believe that people who go out with them... especially the younger ones, are enlightened by seeing a whale in the wild. A fire is started inside... they want to learn and and help... This may also be the only way some individuals will ever see a wild whale. It is a very sensitive subject..... in the end though... who matters the most? The Southern Resident Orcas!!!! Think of them over the dollar!!!!!!

  • Patricia Windom Tuesday, 18 September 2018 12:01 Comment Link Report

    Would it be helpful at all to still allow whale watching on a more limited basis? Limiting boats, days , times or seasons?

  • Jean Behnke Monday, 17 September 2018 23:02 Comment Link Report

    Goodbye Orcinus Orca
    Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
    Class: Mammalia
    Order: Artiodactyla
    Infraorder: Cetacea
    Family: Delphinidae
    Genus: Orcinus

    Many believe we are witnessing an extinction of our relatives the Southern Resident Killer Whales, highly bonded, intelligent and socialized mammals.

    WE are ALL the reason these magnificent whales are dying before us: we have polluted the seawater with the highest levels of chemical toxicity, plastics and unprocessed human waste from Canada. We are ferry riders crossing the Salish Sea by the turn and cavitation of massive propellers on an hourly basis. We are the opportunistic, defiant whale watchers, the eager "naturalists", the unaware recreational boaters. We are a few selfish fisherman, we are the detached owners and captains in wheelhouses of immense commercial vessels, plowing through US/Canadian waters, dwarfing the Orca, striking them, dislocating, stressing them beyond survival.

    ALL of our incessant activity MASKS the Southern Residents finely tuned echolocation used to communicate with each other in a unique dialect and which is specifically adapted to and essential for locating chinook salmon to survive. We are the citizens who allow the US Navy to continually use high-intensity sonar which tragically threatens the SRKW, causing hemorrhaging around the brain and the ears of affected whales. WE are perpetuating the misery for these beloved whales, We are the brilliant scientists and researchers chasing them, terrifying them with our darts and data. WE all seem to want the same thing, we all appear to want the survival of the SRKW, well almost all.

    Almost all of us find it easy to be entrenched in our own opinions, defending our "right" to make a "living", fulfill our jobs, defend our country. We are the joyful tourists unthinkingly taking our rights to have the "experience of a lifetime" by supporting the whale watching industry that has transformed once wild orca habitat into a disturbing and deadly Seaquarium on the west coast of San Juan Island.

    Where are the rights of the Southern Resident Killer Whales to live, the rights of the Salish Sea to be healthy, the fundamental rights of Nature? It is time to enact protective laws granting these named entities defendable rights. One thing is very clear, it is time to wake up and regulate an unfettered whale watching industry and strictly enforce an emergency protection zone along the west coast of San Juan Island and Haro Strait. Now is the time to shut off excruciatingly loud engines powering these monstrous boats. It is nothing but common sense and way past time to end the harassment of the matrilineal Southern Resident Killer Whales and their surviving offspring. Each of us can simply give these whales a sliver of a chance at survival by personally boycotting the whale watching industry that exploits the SRKW.

    It is past time for whale watching operators to commit to being good STEWARDS of these last 74 marine mammals, it is simply humane and respectful. Whale watching companies distribute publicity world-wide and a vast display of rack cards on ferries and in terminals driving a flood of tourists to this finite sensitive marine environment like never before. The whale watching industry has garnered millions and millions of dollars annually from this spotlight endangered species and has betrayed the "attraction" it benefits from. The free ride has to be over for the $200 million dollar whale watching industry, no more exploitation from either side of the border.

    As part of a more humane industry, whale watching tour boat operators can make a positive impact educating visitors on how these magnificent Southern Resident Orca are living their final chapter after thousands of years in these waters. Visitors would successfully be able to record every second of their experience on their iphones from the shoreline in already established Land based Whale Watching parks and know they had an "experience of a lifetime" that was not disturbingly invasive or if they care, expensive.

    As expressed by overwhelming numbers attending the last SRKW Task Force meeting on August 28th, there has been enough research data, scientific testing and ongoing debate. After listening to the Task Members make statements all day, I am one individual without organization at a loss to understand why the "go-to" experts directing this conversation in the San Juan Islands do not speak to the lack of accountability of the American and Canadian whale watching industry impact after all this debate. Tragic losses of J35's calf and J50 clearly brings home the end of the debate for those exploiting the SRKW J,K and L Pods. It takes no expertise to know this.

    NOAA, a branch of our government that we fund and whose job it is to protect, continues to throw reactionary delayed aid at an environmental emergency. Real protection would not come in the form of medicated darts, deadly tagging, torture in the form of orca capture but real protection would come in immediately rulings to provide an enforced total marine protection zone reducing devastating acoustic disturbance, breach the necessary dams to create essential feeding sources and protect our once pristine waters from chemical and unprocessed sewage pollution coming directly into the Salish Sea from Canada.

    What effective protective forward thinking actions are being taken by decision makers at the western division of NOAA? Will Governor Inslee's Task Force create total sanctuary status and establish enforceable protection for the SRKW? Is it time to take Citizen action in San Juan County to create environmental protection for SRKW in our own marine neighborhood? What agency is doing their job to protect these remaining 74 endangered whales as already mandated? NONE.

    In 2015, NOAA paved the way for the US Navy to conduct testing in SRKW habitat waters. Destructive Naval training and testing activities are now being conducted from 2015 through 2020. "The NWTT Study Area is composed of established maritime operating and warning areas in the eastern north Pacific Ocean region, to include the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, and Western Behm Canal in southeastern Alaska. The activities conducted within the NWTT Study Area are classified as military readiness activities. The Navy states that these activities may expose some of the marine mammals present within the NWTT Study Area to sound from underwater acoustic sources and explosives." *

    *from archived documents: "Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; U.S. Navy Training and Testing Activities in the Northwest Training and Testing Study Area. Final Rule by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on 11/24/2015.

    -In response to NOAA on the issue of establishing a Whale Protection Zone, 2107, L.P. "It is NOAA's responsibility to enact management actions that protect the federally listed as endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales(SRKWs). SRKWs are one of only eight Spotlight species of 1,652 on the Endangered Species list. Spotlight species are considered most at risk of extinction unless immediate action is taken to stabilize and recover their populations. Establishing a whale protection zone on the west side of San Juan Island appears to be the most immediate and effective action available to NOAA to address the impacts to SRKWs from vessel noise and to support and enhance their ability to feed. A monitoring and adaptive management plan should be included as part of any decision to establish a whale protection zone."

    It is our deep loss and connection to grieve with the SRKW mother Talequah who traveled and traveled her waters getting all of our attention for 17 days and nights, hanging onto her dead calf. We are not apart from this loss in any way, it is all of our collective environmental disaster and it signals that WE are all on the line, marking a slow train-wreck of total decline in animal and human animal survival.

    Clearly this complex web of related issues is under tough, thoughtful consideration by Governor Inslee's well-assigned Killer Whale Task Force. Bold actions are needed to breach the dams, restore chinook salmon as prey and reduce land and marine pollution.

    The establishment of an EMERGENCY PROTECTION ZONE in critical habitat is the first bold action to take if the SRKW are to have any slight chance at survival. We are all obligated to provide a less stressful place for them to die in their ancestral waters. It is common sense.

  • Laura Kohler Monday, 17 September 2018 16:06 Comment Link Report

    It's time for the whale watching boats to tie up. They herd the whales like cattle day in and day out. Anyone who says vessels around the whales have no negative impact on them is a liar and a shill for that industry. It makes me sick to have to see that every day. Maybe the whale calf that only lived a half hour would have been born healthy had Mom been able to get enough to eat and rest. J50 wouldn't have starved to death had she been able to forage and rest. No more damn whale boats from either side of the border.

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