‘Sea change’ for local orcas, as The Whale Trail gathers

(Photo by Mark Sears – permit 21348)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

“It’s a good week for the whales!”

So declared Donna Sandstrom of The Whale Trail as her organization’s May gathering began at C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor).

She added: “It’s going to be different for the whales this summer and beyond.” Her explanation at the May 16th meeting was followed by an update from Mark Sears, the West Seattle-based researcher who is ofteb out with them when they visit central Puget Sound.

But first:

The Southern Resident Killer Whale population is at 75 animals – no change from when The Whale Trail gathered last month, still just four whales above their historic low of 71. It’s been a little over a year since Gov. Jay Inslee issued an Executive Order for Orca Protection; Sandstrom was on the task force he appointed to make recommendations about saving the SRKWs. They tackled key threats – “none of (them) simple,” as Sandstrom noted: Loss of prey, noise and disturbance from vessels, toxic contaminants, climate change. “The key message is that it’s not one of these things, it’s all of them.”

The goals: Increase salmon by 15 percent, decrease noise by 50 percent, reduce toxin inputs. An issue on which Sandstrom was particularly focused: The growth of commercial whale watching – 30+ companies operating more than 90 vessels in the Pacific Whale Watch Association, she said, plus 27 more independent companies, operating morning to night. It’s vital to “turn down the volume and give them better access to the salmon that’s there,” said Sandstrom, noting even kayaking can be a disturbance – 6,000 kayakers went into the water from one park in the San Juans last year alone, for example. The whales aren’t there for us – “it’s not the Salish Sea World out there,” as Sandstrom put it – they’re just trying to live their lives.

The task force made 36 recommendations last fall. The governor supported the recommended limits on whale watching, she continued, but the Legislature did not, though the permitting system did make it into law. The governor signed five bills earlier this month – addressing some aspects of all the threats. The vessel-impacts bill includes a “go slow” zone, a licensing system, and more. (It’s SB 5577.) She added that West Seattle’s 34th District Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon “fought so hard for the orcas, I want you all to thank him.”

Overall, “it’s a sea change for the southern residents.” Meantime, Sandstrom went on to say that Canada has taken steps too, announcing action earlier this month that’s meant to increase salmon, cut down on vessel noise, keep vessels farther away and slower. Canada is negotiating with whale-watching companies to offer closer access to transient orcas if the companies stay away from the SRKWs. Overall, as she described it, they’re setting up “sanctuary zones” where no boats are allowed, and addressing contaminants.

WHAT’S NEXT: The task force has two more meetings and will talk about climate change as well as whether a task force of some sort should continue on. “This is a tremendously good start and we want to keep it going.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Asked how to help the whales, Sandstrom’s reply included: Everyday actions – don’t use pesticides, do walk or bike instead of drive, participate in beach cleanups and habitat restorations, support the nonprofts and agencies leading this work. Also: Commit to political actions that reduce toxins, increase salmon abundance, and decrease noise; work with your local legislators. “Get engaged in this legislative process …” and if there are orca-related bills next session, be prepared to fight for them! Also: Watch the SRKWs from shore. Encourage whale-watching companies to leave the southern residents alone. She thinks they’ll do the right thing if they understand people want them to. And: Don’t give up! The whales aren’t giving up – you shouldn’t be either.

Next, the night’s guest:

MARK SEARS: Longtime local researcher Mark Sears was accompanied, as he often is on the water, by daughter Maya. They are the people often in that little research boat you might see when the SRKWs are in the area.

(November 2018 photo by David Hutchinson – Mark and Maya Sears heading out on a research voyage)

He has many stories to tell – dating back decades. He started with a photo of J3, a whale who was one of his favorites, gone now 20 years or so. He showed a map of Puget Sound and says he generally stays in central Puget Sound, from Whidbey Island to Point Defiance. The permit under which he works authorizes:

-Fecal recovery
-Predation event sampling (after the whales catch something to eat)
-Photo identification
-Encounter information (date, time, location, # of whales, behavioral states)

Yes, his photos included whale poop – which they mark, once spotted, by throwing an orange into the water! Once recovered, the samples are frozen and quickly transferred to the local NOAA lab. He also showed some of the prey samples they’ve picked up, from salmon scales to a hunk of harbor-seal hide (the transient orcas eat those).

Mark also explained how they identify the whales – maybe a saddle patch, maybe nicks, maybe tooth rakes on the whales’ backs. They showed a photo of J17, a female around 40, whose health has been a subject of concern, though Maya noted hat the most-recent report was of improvement.

The orcas’ behavioral states, through the course of a day – foraging, travel, resting, socializing. They are generally traveling “from one feeding ground to anoher,” Mark said, sometimes close together, sometimes spread out. They keep a distance behind the traveling/resting whales.

(Photo from 2018 K-Pod visit, by Kersti Muul)

In fall, southern residents come in for the chum salmon – a little late last year – and Mark had a list of some of the encounters, 7 visits in November by J- and/or K-Pods. “A lot of focus on Commencement Bay” last year, said Mark, which was new – the chum had stacked up/schooled up on their way to the Puyallup River, it seems.

In December, K- and J-Pods visited a total of four times, and L-Pod came in January 10th wth K-Pod – and new calf L124 was with them. Mark had just left on a vacation; usually the residents’ visits are over by that time of year.

Recent transient visits included March 26th, what seemed like a “record day” for transients in Puget Sound – 42 transients altogether visited that day. Not much afterward, on April 5th, 32 transients came through. It’s only been 15 years since the transients started coming in big time. “Lots of pinnipeds and lots of harbor porpoises,” so there’s lots of food, but that’s not new, so Mark says their suddenly frequent visits are new.

He suspects there was some mating going on April 5th – they saw some evidence with the males, he elaborated.

And he showed photos from a visit just hours before The Whale Trail’s gathering – orcas close to a ferry at the mouth to Elliott Bay, and an orca tossing around a sea lion (“probably 600, 700, 800 pounds”) before eating it. Another orca appeared to be “doing headstands,” tail straight out of the water.

He ended with a picture of K16 breaching – “that’s what we want to see, nice fat southern residents!”)

Q&A included whether orcas share prey. Yup, said Mark, whether sea lions (transients) or salmon (residents).

Is there a genetic difference between the transients and residents, regarding their prey? The former have much bigger jaws, for example, said Mark. The California transients are biggest – they’re the ones that even kill whales.

Other questions focused on other groups such as the Northern Resident Killer Whales.

Looking back over recent decades, Mark marveled at how fast things could change – such as the sudden stop to captures, the movie “Blackfish” leading to a cry for “no more captivity,” and he hopes the same thing will be the case for vessel-based whale watching. “Once people really ‘get’ that, the whole thing changes.”

Sandstrom mentioned a petition drive in the San Juans to get a ballot measure requiring a greater distance for vessels. (We heard directly from those organizers while finishing this report; here’s their website.) “Something HAS changed, and I think it’s only going to get better for the whales.”

An attendee asked about the Snake River dam removal issue. Sandstrom said that some believe that’s all that matters – the number of salmon too. But she believes more attention should be focused on the availability of salmon, affected by vessel noise that is “blinding” the orcas. Stressing she wasn’t speaking for the task force, she said that among other things, taking down those dams could cause a temporary loss of salmon, “even if there was a long-term gain.” It might ultimately be a great thing but in the short term it would put the number of fish coming out of that system at risk, and they can’t risk that for the critical years ahead in which they need the population to start rebounding. “The best thing we can do (for now) is let them ind the salmon that’s there.” The whales eat salmon that come from five major systems in all, not just the Columbia.

The task-force process was sincere. “Everyone’s really trying to solve this,” insisted Sandstrom. “The people who would have you be cynical – it’s a way of not engaging. There are reasonable people trying to find a middle ground.” But the focus overall needs to remain: “It’s not too late … but it will be soon.”

NEXT EVENT: The Whale Trail will be back at C & P on June 20th.

8 Replies to "'Sea change' for local orcas, as The Whale Trail gathers"

  • Jane Green May 26, 2019 (3:31 pm)

    Yeah, once again, it’s the Salmon that the whales need the Most. They are Starving. They are not “blinded” by noise of whale watch boats. There are no such previsions being made for private boaters, barges, cruise ships, fisherman. Whale watch boats teach appreciation and in turn help conservation of whales, in addition to always following the guidelines of whale-watching, again, something other boaters do not do. BREACH THE DAMS. That has Zero to do with Blackfish, a film full of lies and propaganda.

  • waikikigirl May 26, 2019 (5:45 pm)

    You say “it’s a good week for whales”…not 1 gray whale per KOMO News’ story :>(

  • j May 27, 2019 (10:19 am)

    Canada is not helping. Canada is major cause of salmon shortage. Their salmon farming practices are killing millions of salmon and they are covering it up. Salmon flu and salmon lukemia. I am boycotting Canada until they remove all salmon pens from their waters. https://youtu.be/fTCQ2IA_ZssAlso, STOP towing the whales back north when they die in the south sound so scientists can do experiments on them. Do the tests here or tow them back when done. Scientists are taking a major food supply from our area that should remain here. They’re ruining part of our ecosystem. Whales are a tremendous food source that support our salmon fry and other fish that salmon feed on. 

  • Howard Garrett May 27, 2019 (11:51 am)

    The idea that Snake River dam removal would cause even a temporary decrease in chinook for So. Resident orcas was made up on the spot by a member of the pro-dam lobby on the Task Force and has no logic or evidence. As detailed in the Army Corps’ 2002 study of dam breaching, the slight increase in turbidity would more likely help hide smolts from predators and add to the ways breaching would vastly increase adult chinook in the ocean 2-3 years later.

  • K Reed May 27, 2019 (4:33 pm)

    A blatantly self-serving statements about vessel-based whale watching like, “Once people really ‘get’ that, the whole thing changes” is unfortunate as well as scientifically incorrect. The argument that we must discontinue whale watching because it creates disturbance to whales in the Salish Sea has a feel-good veneer that comes from a naïve hypotheses elevated to hysterical dogma that the SRKW are suffering from stress from all the underwater noise and / or cannot find their food in the din. In reality, ordinary vessel radiated propulsion sound is an anthropogenic acoustic feature that creates little overlap into the biosonar envelope of the whales, and in its steady predictable pattern is readily accommodated. Whales evolved in occasionally extremely noisy sound fields and are exquisitely adapted to interpret their acoustic environment as it changes – they behaviorally react more to abrupt starts and stops and changes of frequency and intensity than they do to small vessels idling in their vicinity. Simple fact is that SRKW can’t find what it not there regardless of noise or not. SRKW need Chinook salmon from the Idaho spawning grounds that are choked off by four unnecessary dams on the lower Snake River. Free the Snake and restore the ecosystem.

  • anonyme May 28, 2019 (7:15 am)

    Enough with all the bickering and posturing about what should or shouldn’t be done to save the whales.  We should be doing ALL we can, and more, whether it be breaching the dams, reducing vessel traffic and noise, eliminating pesticides, etc.   I would add curtailing human breeding and consumption to the list, but that ship has sailed.  We can’t keep allowing exemptions simply because some guy is making money off of exploiting whales; this is no different than allowing captures for SeaWorld.  Enough with allowing human greed and petty politics to dictate the survival of species and ecosystems.  This approach has not only brought orca and many other species to the brink of extinction, but our own species as well.

  • Donna, The Whale Trail May 28, 2019 (1:37 pm)

    Well said, Anonyme. Thank you. This is not an “either/or” question – it’s a both/and.  We need to increase salmon abundance throughout the orcas’ range, and reduce toxins that make them more susceptible to disease, and decrease the noise and disturbance that makes it harder for them to hunt and communicate with each other.  Not one of these things, but all. And it will take all of us, doing everything we can. Thanks to Mark and Maya, to everyone who attended and volunteered, to C&P for hosting us, and to Tracy for the accurate and detailed reporting. See you on the 20th!

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