ORCAS: The Whale Trail celebrates a ‘sea change’ in support for protection

(March photo by David Hutchinson, Southern Residents seen from Constellation Park)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

News of what’s believed to be a newborn Southern Resident Killer Whale didn’t emerge until after The Whale Trail‘s summer gathering four nights ago.

Nonetheless, it was an optimistic, even jubilant gathering just the same, with an update on the resident orcas from their spring visits and the new laws meant to “give them space” on the water.

The gathering filled C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor) last Thursday night, with The Whale Trail’s founder/executive director Donna Sandstrom first providing an update on her organization, which is now educating people from California to Canada about the orcas (and other sea life) with more than 130 interpretive signs installed so far, including four in West Seattle, “to connect people more deeply to the place they’re at.” Almost half those signs are in British Columbia, where the newest one – in Saturna – was just dedicated, with a special audio feature so that visitors can hear local First Nations people’s songs about the whales.

She also spoke about the orca task force, launched by Gov. Inslee, on which she served, a desperate bid to help stop the Southern Resident Killer Whales from going extinct, which Sandstrom said could happen in less than a century, “just a minute in time.” Accomplishments included a licensing program for commercial whale watchers and a voluntary program to give the whales space. That became even more urgent when research showed noise had an even-more dramatic effect on the orcas. And then the new law requiring boaters to stay 1,000 yards away from Southern Residents, starting in 2025, was passed. Sandstrom says she’s hopeful that 80 percent of boaters will pledge to do that voluntarily long before it’s required. And she hopes the U.S. and Canadian governments will step up and adopt the rule too.

That led to the night’s first guess, hailed by Sandstrom as an “orca hero,” 34th District State. Rep. (and House Majority Leader) Joe Fitzgibbon. He said legislative efforts to protect the environment really gained ground in 2019, and said that successes since then were not only what had already been mentioned, but also oil-spill protection, restrictions on toxic chemicals like flame retardants, and enforcement power for the state Fish and Wildlife Department regarding laws such as limits on in-water construction. Overall, though, he said, “We know we’re not done yet. … What’s really satisfying will be when we start to see the population recover.”

(On-water research during residents’ visit in March – photo by David Hutchinson)

Next up were West Seattle father-and-daughter orca researchers Mark Sears and Maya Sears. (She ran the slide show, he did the talking, this time.) They work under a federal permit that allows them to do photo identification, predation sampling (seeing what the orcas are eating), and fecal/mucus sampling (which provides a lot of information about the whales’ health). As Mark noted, the Southern Residents are fish eaters, the transient orcas (aka Bigg’s Killer Whales) are mammal eaters – porpoises, seals, sea lions. In the latter group, the T65A’s – “a mom and her kids” – are relatively frequent visitors. She’s 37 years old, her son is 19, and her other offspring are 5, 9, 12, and 16. “The transients are actually gaining in population,” probably because of their diet, he said. Lately they seem to prefer Steller’s Sea Lions, he added.

Moving on to talk about the Southern Residents, he showed the kinds of samples they collect, such as bits and pieces of fish they’ve consumed – analysis can provide information all the way down to what river that fish came from. Fecal analysis provides a “treasure trove” of information, he continued, including genetic and health details, even pregnancy analysis when applicable. He’s been working with the whales so long, he has a lot of contextual history to share, observing that for example the Southern Residents used to swim much further into the South Sound than they do now. He showed photos from their spring visit, with a couple of family groups from J-Pod. After a foraging session, they said, the whales will usually hang out together, socialize, “chase each other around for a bit.”

The final guest was Dr. Julie Watson, killer-whale policy lead with the state Fish and Wildlife Department (filling a double role, as an enforcement agent who was also scheduled to speak had to cancel at the last minute). She recapped legislative victories over the past few years. She mentioned websites of note including orca.wa.gov and bewhalewise.org. She also explained that the state is tasked with having to “adaptively manage the license program dnd rules” – analyzing it, and changing it if necessary. They worked to get a report done before this past legislative session. Among other things they incorporated, Dr. Watson said, “some really big science came out before last fall” and they had a third party see whether whale-watching boats were following the rules and getting licensed.

She talked about lessons learned such as how much vessel traffic affects Southern Resident Killer Whales’ foraging, even if the boats are ‘going really slow” – when they’re within 1,640 yards or so, they exhibit avoidance behavior, such as hanging around on the surface or diving more deeply, “not focsing on eating.” They learned that having a variety of regulations applying to different groups of boaters was “tough to communicate and difficult for the average boater to follow” – but they also learned that “everybody wants more enforcement.” So with all that came the recommendation to increase the boat buffer to 1,000 yards around the resident orcas, for all boaters. As Sandstrom had said, they’re hopeful of getting early adoption long before 2025. And of course, she said, as does The Whale Trail, the state enthusiastically supports whale-watching from shore.

Presenting the information an enforcement captain was supposed to provide, she had some stats:

*93 dedicated SRKW patrols
*582 vessel hours
*893 officer hours
*Contacts with 221 rec vessels, 47 commercial vessels
*33 warnings, 12 citations (speed and distance violations)

WDFW partners with the U.S. Coast Guard, San Juan County Sheriff, tribal law enforcement, and NOAA. They also have “non-law-enforcement partnerships that make a difference.” But, Dr. Watson said, they need the public to help. You can report violations online, and clear information and documentation (such as video, if available) really helps – especially when it shows who’s piloting a boat and its number, for example.

Q&A: One attendee wondered how boat owners are initially informed about the rules. For one, at the time they renew their registration, Dr. Watson said, plus the state has done a lot of other marketing. (They’re also setting up an advisory group to help.) Do nonmotorized vessels such as kayaks have an effect on whales? Answer: Yes. Question: What about regularly scheduled boats like ferries? Dr. Watson replied that a lot of work is going on regarding ferries and cargo ships, in the program Quiet Sound, and with initiatives like Whale Alert so they get word of sightings. Next question was more of a comment, from a sailing-club representative, who said they were going to be outfitting boats with whale flags. Dr. Watson observed that “boaters talking to other boaters makes a difference.”

Question: Are the resident orcas expanding what they eat? Mark Sears replied that on the outer coast, they discovered the orcas were eating halibut and lingcod, “a real revelation.” They don’t only eat chinook salmon – they show up in Puget Sound in the fall for the chum run, for example. Sandstrom emphasized that the resident orcas are “opportunistic feeders” and are “not starving” – they prefer chinook salmon but eat other fish.

There was also some discussion of those salacious stories out of Spain about orcas attacking boats. Consensus – including a woman who had visited that area – was that it was overblown.

Another sticky topic – the concept of killing California Sea Lions because they eat salmon too. Dr. Watson said some work is under way on the Columbia River involving “lethal removal,” but closer to this area, they’ve been “experimenting with non-lethal methods like acoustic deterrents.” Sandstrom said that unlike some other groups, The Whale Trail does not support killing sea lions. “We should address root causes, not get rid of animals who’ve learned how to game the system.” The ecosystem, she added, “is a tapestry and when you pull at one thread you have no idea what you wind up unraveling.”

Bringing it back to moving forward, she said it was a “sea change” to see how much support the newest regulations had, and that “now our job is to make it real.”

8 Replies to "ORCAS: The Whale Trail celebrates a 'sea change' in support for protection"

  • miws June 27, 2023 (6:14 am)

    If it’s not already being done, I think a great way to spread the word of the rules of boating distance from Orcas would be to have the info plastered all around local marinas, and, if the marinas have monthly newsletters or some such, at least periodical info in those. —Mike

  • Karen June 27, 2023 (6:44 am)

    Thanks to all involved for such an informative meeting and a good turn out. We all need to be educated as to what we can do as individuals and spread the word. I hope there will be more meeting in the future. 

  • Michelle June 27, 2023 (7:02 am)

    This update warms my heart! Much gratitude to Donna, Mark, Maya, Joe and Julie for all of the incredibly important conservation work. I remember when The Whale Trail first started and very impressed with all of their achievements since then. Please continue to keep us posted here on ways we can support these efforts. 

  • w107saa June 27, 2023 (9:45 am)

    What a wonderful update!  I am wondering if the transient groups have any protections?  Especially the group mentioned that frequents here….we unfortunately watched a whale watching boat that pursued and were way too close to a group of transients this weekend😡

    • TG June 27, 2023 (11:36 am)

      Same, I saw a reckless boat full of people make several trips back and forth and almost hit a kayaker at Alki Point this past weekend bc he was so close to shore. Zero acknowledgement too, I couldn’t find a boat number on it, or a way to report them. 😡

    • Donna, The Whale Trail June 27, 2023 (4:34 pm)

      Boaters are required by US federal law to stay 200 yards away from Bigg’s (transient) orcas in the Salish Sea. To report a violation please call 1 (800) 853-1964‬ ,or submit a form on the Be Whale Wise website, or email to report@bewhalewise.org. Provide photos or videos if possible, these are most helpful to the agencies who will follow up.

  • Donna June 27, 2023 (10:20 am)

    Thanks WSB for the detailed write-up. And whale-sized thanks to our presenters, to C&P for turning the place inside out for us, and above all to our volunteers (Felicia, Jackie, Bill, Julia, Peggy and Kris) who make everything we do possible. The law and the orcas were well-celebrated and I feel lucky to live in such a supportive community, that has nurtured The Whale Trail and our efforts to protect southern residents from the start.MIWS – marina signs are a great suggestion. WDFW is convening a task force (ORCA) to recommend these and other boater solutions. Learn more and apply at the WDFW website here. The law doesn’t take effect until 2025 but the whales need space to forage now.  Boaters, take the pledge to stay 1,000 yards away from J, K and L pods voluntarily at givethemspace.org.  With the new calf in L pod, there are eight calves under five years old. The future of the population is here. Give the whales the space they need, and give them a chance to go on. Thanks to everyone who attended our event, and see you on The Whale Trail!

  • Jennifer Carrasco June 27, 2023 (12:27 pm)

    Really interesting information…and HOPE! Thanks. Jennifer Carrasco

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