FOLLOWUP: Is Terminal 5’s modernization bad news for endangered resident orcas? One environmentalist turned port commissioner says no

(2020 photo of then-newborn resident calf J57: Center for Whale Research / Permit #21238 /

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Tomorrow, the Northwest Seaport Alliance‘s managing members – the port commissioners of Seattle and Tacoma – get their quarterly update on the modernization project at Terminal 5 in West Seattle.

(June photo by Stewart L.)

Four big signs of that progress drew a lot of attention last month – the new T-5 cranes that arrived from China. Their arrival sparked some discussion among WSB commenters about whether the dock modernization project is bad news for Puget Sound’s endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

No, says Fred Felleman, a Seattle port commissioner whose background, before taking office in 2016, was in environmental advocacy. (Checking WSB archives, the first time we mentioned him was when he spoke to the Port Commission in 2015, voicing opposition to the use of T-5 for staging Shell‘s Arctic oil-exploration fleet. That was one of the interim uses T-5 has seen since it went out of regular cargo service in 2014.)

Felleman spoke with WSB to address some of the concerns – such as vessel noise, which has a demonstrable effect on the SRKWs, and ship strikes, a threat to many whale species. “Just because we’re building another terminal doesn’t mean more ships.” That’s not just a reference to the fact that T-5 will serve larger ships – meaning fewer ships to move the same amount of cargo – Felleman points out that the new dock (T-5’s north berth will open early next year, its south berth later) will also take pressure off currently overburdened docks, like Terminal 18 on the east side of Harbor Island. (That also means less need for ships to anchor while waiting to dock – lately more have had to spend time at designated anchorages such as the spots off Manchester, visible looking west from West Seattle’s western shore.)

What will make a major difference, Felleman says, is the Quiet Sound initiative, modeled after the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s ECHO Program in Canada. This will be a request for vessels to voluntarily slow down when orcas are in the area. Felleman says the Canadian program has had 80 percent compliance and he’s confident the one here will too.

He says Quiet Sound goes beyond requests for ships to slow, but also involves major collaboration, both with vessel operators such as Washington State Ferries – responsible for a major share of ship noise in Puget Sound – and with entities that can help improve the sighting network, so the word gets out to everyone on the water when the whales are in the area.

Felleman also touts the noise and emission reductions that will come from T-5 ships being able to use shore power while they’re here. While the port did not decide to require it, he feels confident that most shore-power-capable shippers “will do it because it saves a buck.” For any who might not see savings, Felleman said, the port is “looking at covering the difference … we can make it so it’s never a cost disadvantage to plug in.” That dovetails, he explained, with the port’s Clean Air Strategy.

WSB readers brought up another concern: The dredging that’s planned to deepen the water by T-5 another five feet. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit earlier this year against two federal entities, including the Army Corps of Engineers, which it accuses of failing to adequately study how the endangered orcas might be affected by more, larger, louder vessels, and by disturbing contaminated sediment. Felleman again takes issue with the premise that T-5’s reopening will bring in more ships. He also believes it’s “premature at best” to assume that the dredging will increase pollution.

Ultimately, he says, the port is trying to be “responsible (and) environment-friendly as we can be.”

The Quiet Sound noise-reduction initiative emerged from a recommendation by Gov. Jay Inslee‘s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, points out a West Seattleite who served on that task force, Donna Sandstrom, executive director of The Whale Trail. “We appreciate and recognize the benefits of the terminal expansions for their positive impacts on jobs and the economy. However, potential negative impacts on endangered southern residents and their prey must be mitigated and closely monitored,” she said. “That’s why we strongly support the Quiet Sound program, which will help reduce these risks.” She notes that it was inspired by the 22nd recommendation in the task force’s final report two years ago.

Sandstrom also says you can help the orcas and other marine mammals: “If you see a whale, report the sighting to Whale Report via app or website. That’s the fastest and most reliable way to let large-vessel operators know that whales are in the area, and gives them a chance to slow down or take other evasive measures. Whale Report sightings are shared real-time with large vessel operators (e.g., container ships, tankers, and ferries) and WDFW Enforcement, but not with the general public. The app is produced by Ocean Wise, and can be downloaded for free on iTunes or Google Play. The more sightings that are shared with Whale Report, the safer the whales will be.” She isn’t discouraging people from sharing sightings with local information sources (like WSB) – her advice is intended, she says, a supplement to “existing information flows.”

WHAT’S NEXT: The next NWSA managing members’ meeting, including the aforementioned T-5 briefing, is scheduled for 9 am Wednesday (July 7th). The agenda includes information on attending/commenting. Felleman says you’ll be hearing more soon about Quiet Sound.

10 Replies to "FOLLOWUP: Is Terminal 5's modernization bad news for endangered resident orcas? One environmentalist turned port commissioner says no"

  • Kersti Muul July 6, 2021 (6:16 pm)

    A note about WRAS (whale reporting system) it has about a 15 minute lag time before captains receive the information. So it’s best done proactive and preventively. I always report when I know the whales are coming, versus when they are already here. I know Fred has the orcas interest at heart. Also he was very helpful with me,  with Port access to the baby terns last week during the night off hours. I really appreciated that. 

  • JDP July 6, 2021 (8:20 pm)

    The T-5 area was declared a Superfund Site in 2001.  After the clean up, there was not supposed to be any dredging of the sediments – per the EPA, WA State and Army Corp of Engineers.  What is different now in 2021?

  • D July 6, 2021 (8:31 pm)

    The counter argument should be: 90% of boat collisions with whales results in their deaths. 80 whales are hit by boats every year off the west coast. Until we invest in better protective measures for the whales should we really be expanding the port?

    • alki_2008 July 7, 2021 (1:11 am)

      Collisions in the ocean are not the same as collisions in Puget Sound. The speeds are much different. Slower speeds in the sound. And as mentioned in the article, with the ability to serve larger ships then there won’t need to be as many ships.

      The changes at this port do not mean other protections for whales in the Pacific Ocean can’t happen.

  • For orca mammas July 7, 2021 (5:23 pm)

    So sorry orcas. I love you.

    Some of us are very concerned for your survival, but feeling helpless, as human industry and economy continues to destroy your chances.

    That is what this photo (of larger cranes) represents to me, makes me sick to my stomach.

    Expanding the port to support larger ships will dredge up *unknown amounts of toxins, and these larger ships will increase boat noise in the sea which will make hunting and survival even harder on these amazing and urgently endangered whales.

    Hurts my heart.

  • Joe Z July 8, 2021 (10:40 am)

    If Kersti vouches for Fred that’s all I need to hear. 

  • For orca mammas July 8, 2021 (8:19 pm)

    Larger ships typically create louder noise and in the lower frequencies that orcas communicate within, and creates noise across vaster distances.

    Slowing down ships may lessen the loudness, but doesn’t slowing them down then also prolong the noise pollution exposure?

    Larger ships, and new docks and cranes, doesn’t necessarily mean more ships, true. But, all of that costs money. And the port is a business. And with increased capacity, it’s reasonable to think this could lead to more ships in the future.

    Are there any assurances these larger vessels will reduce the number of boats coming and going, with no increases over time?

    Could larger vessels be a greater risk for boat/whale strikes? Was this studied and considered?

    The Quiet Sound initiative seems a positive effort, and I’m hopeful it proves successful and beneficial for orcas here.  However, I’m worried it is a good distraction (‘hey don’t look at this, look at the positive thing we’re doing over there!’) that will appease and satisfy the public enough that they will be complacent and think all is being done that can be.  

    I’m with Whale Trail regarding their statement that ‘potential negative impacts on endangered southern residents and their prey must be mitigated and closely monitored.’

    The bottom line is, this industry contributes hazards to endangered orcas, and in my humble but concerned opinion is that we should be reducing base line impacts, not expanding them AND we should be taking more initiatives to help the orcas.

    Great to hear the Port Commissioner has true concern for orcas (and is helpful regarding helping other animals), and wants to do all they can to help while still expanding and increasing capacity. However, unfortunately, their very industry is in some conflict with orcas survival.

    Not an expert, just a person wanting to help by sharing concern for these whales, who cannot save themselves, and think it’s worthwhile to have these conversations on their behalf.

    • For Orca Mammas July 8, 2021 (8:58 pm)

      *this (Port Commissioner)

      * opinion that we should be

      Sorry for some typos

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