(2012 photo by Rick Rasmussen)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Ten years after they were formally listed as endangered, what do we really know about Puget Sound’s endangered orcas, formally known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales?
One of the focal points of her research is how boat traffic affects the whales. And that was at the heart of The Whale Trail’s first Orca Talk of the season, last Thursday at C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor).
During that event, Bruce Stedman of Orca Relief talked about his organization’s proposal of a zone in the San Juans where boats would have to keep a greater distance from whales than they do now. He said it’s not the only action that’s needed to help them – but it’s the one that could make a difference the quickest. Pointedly, he noted that the recovery plan originally envisioned up to 115 Southern Resident Killer Whales by 2015, but that is at this point beyond impossible … that’s three dozen more than the current population, which has had only one birth in the past two years, the calf that is now missing and presumed dead.
He says the protection zone (see it here) is “an idea that really has its roots in the regulatory process of 2009-2011” in that “vessel noise and disturbance was one of the three major factors disturbing the whales,” which led to the rules about how far away boats had to stay from whales. “They also suggested a protected area of some kind,” which led to “so many negative reactions that they withdrew the (idea) before the regulations were finalized.”
The idea was supposed to be taken up “expeditiously” – but three years have gone by, and now the population is down to 78 whales, and time is running out.
Stedman was the first curator of The Whale Museum, and then had been away from the region for a long time. “When I moved back to Seattle,” he said, he was asked, to try to “take the next step on figuring out how to (help) the Southern Resident Killer Whales.” He and his group are aware that many don’t think there needs to be a protected area; he does, and hopes to win people over to his belief that minimizing noise and disturbance is “absolutely necessary for recovery.”
What would constitute recovery? In 2005, when listed as endangered, a recovered population would have 115 whales by 2015, 155 by 2028. “Clearly, we’re not even going in that direction.” Federally designated critical habitat “is there, but is not very effective.” The value of a restricted one is this, he said: “What we really need is to enable the whales to have a sufficiently free area for communicating, for resting, and in particular, for hunting.”
Right now, according to Stedman, the SRKWs “are no better off than they were three decades ago.” And, “the breeding-age females (16) are the heart of the matter.” The males are assumed to be able to breed the whole length of their life. Juvenile females are in dire straits, while juvenile males are in a slightly more promising pattern.
And as for the next generation: “It IS tragic that the baby who was born died but what’s more tragic is that there had only been one birth in the past two years.” There should have been three births in that time, with one or two survivors, he said.
Before the Puget Sound captures last century, the population might have peaked at 200 to 300 around 1900 – might possibly have numbered as many as 1,000 around 1700 – and there might have been 130 or so in pre-capture times, he said.
Low chinook returns, plus whale-watching boats, plus private boats, plus large ships, equal starvation, Stedman said. “They start to absorb their own blubber, because they are hungry,” and that means they absorb the toxins stored in their blubber. And all that leads to declining reproduction, he said. “And when you have a very weak population – which this is – they’re just sitting ducks for an oil spill or a disease outbreak.”
The remedies include steps that might not reap benefits for decades – “a lot more salmon, which everyone agrees with; and reducing the toxic load.” And then, to Orca Relief’s proposal: Reducing noise and disturbance with a whale protection zone can be done relatively quickly and with a lot of benefit, he said.
The location where they propose a protection zone is six to 12 square miles, “less than half a percent of the entire critical habitat,” he said. “We want to focus the design on hot spots for feeding, important places for resting (and) communicating.”
He went into details about how the boats can affect the whales. And as far as whale-watching is concerned, he brought The Whale Trail’s land-based viewing enhancement into it – including proposed viewing sites along Vancouver Island. In the San Juans, he said, “there’s lots of precedent for this kind of thing.”
They want the feds to start a review process as soon as possible. They’re also concerned about a proposal to increase shipping traffic. But the proposal they’re making is mostly about smaller, whale-watching boats. And they want the Fisheries Service to start studying it. Also to be looked at: Conflicts with commercial salmon fishing. “We’re not saying there shouldn’t be any fishing in the protection zone, but (something has to be worked out) so that while the whales are there, the engines are affecting them.”
Other “regulatory things that need to be looked at” that he mentioned: Air pollution (from lots and lots of small boats), and, “We think there ought to be a permit system for whale-watching.”
Questions included how the zone would be “labeled” so that it could be enforced as necessary – it would be on navigational charts, for example, he said, and contended that it would not be detrimental to whale-watching industry, which he estimated includes 75 boats and 20 companies “from Anacortes to Victoria and Vancouver.”
It could be an overall tourism-industry concern, though, someone pointed out.
The reply: “At what point would you accept (rules) more rigorous because the decline is so serious? 70? 65? 60?” He also points out that a time might come when there are no whales in Puget Sound, not just because they are dead but because they are spending all their time on the outer coast. “Our intention is that sometime in the next year a public process would be established by the service, and then everyone will have the chance to comment.” For now, he said, he had a meeting coming up with an official involved in marine-mammal research policy; also, his group has an online petition. “(The orcas) might be able to eke through if they weren’t bothered all the time .. let’s get a zone in place and find out. It certainly can’t hurt.”
Sandstrom clarified that The Whale Trail has not endorsed the idea but “we are profoundly opposed to the idea of the whales going extinct … we cannot sit and watch this (decline) happen. … The whale-watching industry is a welcome participant in this conversation … I envision everybody at the table, and we come up with something that works for everybody and especially the whales … they’re going to disappear in 100 years if this population (trend) continues. … Everybody wants somebody else to do something; the thing I learned from Springer is, what can *I* do?”
‘Diver Laura’ James chimed in, “We are all stakeholders.”
Before Stedman’s presentation that night, here’s what attendees heard about:
THE WHALE TRAIL UPDATE: Sandstrom recapped her speaking tour since the last Orca Talk in April – beyond the Northwest. “Great crowds gathered to hear about the whales and learn what they can do … people are becoming aware of them and concerned about them,” and understanding that the future of the salmon, as far south as Monterey, California, is intertwined with the future of these orcas. The Whale Trail itself extends that far south now with “new sites and signs”; Point No Point in Kitsap County is the next site to be added, She said. “If you know a site that should be on The Whale Trail, let us know.”
Orca experts on hand, as Sandstrom pointed out, included West Seattleite Mark Sears, and reps from the Vashon Hydrophone Project and WildOrca.org, a pilot-founded organization that is working to get a Kenmore Air plane “painted like an orca,” Sandstrom noted.
SEAL SITTERS UPDATE: Lynn Shimamoto from Seal Sitters updated the group with sad news; the number of dead pups is way up, number of responses overall is way down. She talked about the first pup of the season, Luigi, who was newborn – a lanugo (premature) pup – but whose mom was never seen. He had to be taken to PAWS but they couldn’t save him. “So the start of our season was kind of distressing.” You can read other pupdates at Seal Sitters’ Blubberblog.
DIVER LAURA/TOX-ICK.ORG UPDATE: “A whole lot of people are working really, really, really hard to reduce the flow of toxic runoff into Puget Sound.” But, we “all need to kind of buck up and do our part,” she said. She explained how she got involved with the “Don’t Feed the Toxic Monster” program – she’d been shooting underwater video of runoff, and now she could help people learn how to cut down on what makes that runoff toxic. (See the “7 simple solutions” here.)
AGAIN, THE NEXT WHALE TRAIL TALK … is next Tuesday with Dawn Noren, 7-8:30 pm November 11th, doors open at 6:15 pm, talk begins at 7, at C & P Coffee (5612 California SW). $5 suggested donation for tickets, kids free – buy online ASAP to guarantee a seat. Read more about the planned talk and the speaker on The Whale Trail’s site.