Edmonds whale-watching group opposes proposed restrictions

Puget Sound Express: ‘Could cause more harm than good’
By Brian Soergel | Nov 19, 2018
Courtesy of: Renee Beitzel Transient orca whales captured by a Puget Sound Express photographer earlier this month.

A task force arranged by Gov. Jay Inslee in March has now recommended a partial ban on whale-watching tours in an attempt to save Washington state’s endangered southern resident killer whales from extinction.

The task force wants to suspend whale-watching boat tours focused on southern residents for three to five years.

That recommendation, one of 36 intended to increase the run of chinook salmon, another Pacific Northwest icon and which the southern resident orcas are largely dependent on for food, is misguided, says Puget Sound Express, a whale-watching operation with departures from Edmonds and Port Townsend.

“One of the biggest issues with a ban on the southern resident killer whale watching is that it is truly a distraction from the core issue for these whales, which is salmon,” said Sarah Hanke, a spokeswoman for the Hanke family, which founded Puget Sound Express more than 30 years ago.

“Hindering whale-watching vessels viewing these animals could cause more harm than good, as whale-watching vessels provide valuable tracking and information on the whales that could be lost.”

The ban would not adversely affect Puget Sound Express, as Hanke said about 10 percent of the company’s tours involves the viewing of southern residents.

Most sightings are of humpback whales, which eat mostly krill and small fish, and transient orcas, which hunt for harbor seals and are mammal-eating, not dependent on a single food source.

Both of those populations have tripled in recent years, Hanke said.

“There are lots of questions,” she said. “It’s confusing. Would the ban include ferries and freighters? It’s good to give the whales some space, but it could be dangerous for them if no one is watching and monitoring them.”

In Puget Sound, the population of Southern Resident killer whales has declined from 98 in 1995 to 74 today, according to the governor’s office, whose task force studied immediate steps and long-term solutions to continue the survival of both chinook and orca populations.

The task force consisted of state agencies, tribal leaders, local governments, federal partners and other stakeholders instructed to make recommendations at the state, regional and federal levels.

“We heard from thousands of people from all over the state, region and the world who are very passionate about saving these animals,” Inslee said in a news release.

The governor will review the recommendations, expected to be included when he releases his budget and policy priorities in mid-December for consideration during the 2019 Legislative session.

One recommendation pertinent to whale-watching tour operators would establish a go-slow zone for small vessels and commercial whale-watching vessels within half a nautical mile of southern resident orcas, while reducing vessel speeds to 7 knots or less and increasing the distance kept from whales to 400 feet from the current 200 feet.

Puget Sound Express’ guidelines currently call for its boats to maintain a slow zone of 7 mph within 1 kilometer of whales, while maintaining a distance of 200 yards.

Another task force recommendation would “establish a limited-entry whale-watching permit system for commercial whale-watching vessels and commercial kayak groups in the inland waters of Washington state to increase acoustic and physical refuge opportunities for the orcas.”

The latter would consider limiting the amount of time commercial whale-watching vessels may spend in the vicinity of a particular group of whales and limiting the number of commercial whale-watching vessels that may be in the vicinity of the whales at a given time.

Hanke said that Ken Balcomb, a task-force member and founding director of the Center for Whale Research, does not support the partial ban. He says that Pacific Whale Watching Association (PWWA) whale operators – Puget Sound Express is a founding member – provide valuable education as well as behavior modeling for other vessels.

“The task force clearly identifies shipping and ferries – not whale-watching vessels – as the primary producers of underwater noise in the Salish Sea,” Hanke said. “And yet, in the last interview on Friday, they said that ferries will not be slowing down to help with noise underwater.”

Hanke added that Puget Sound Express observes the strictest whale-watching guidelines in the world, many of which are proposed for adoption in the task force recommendations and already implemented within the whale-watching community.

“We, as a family business and one of the longest whale-watching operators in the area, are disheartened by the recommendations from the task force regarding whale-watching vessels because it distracts from the issue and need for salmon,” Hanke said.

“These whales are needing food, and the only immediate way to fix that is to bring in more salmon. Companies within the Pacific Whale Watch Association have donated $1.5 million to salmon recovery in this year alone. We strongly hope and encourage the government to fund salmon recovery in large ways to fix this problem for the southern resident killer whales.”

On Monday, Nov. 19, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz requested a $90 million funding package to support the work of the task force by restoring development-damaged aquatic lands and access to rivers cut off by barriers to fish passage.

The aquatic habitat protections and improvements would be carried out by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

“We haven’t had a baby orca survive in three years,” she said. “Our salmon runs continue to decline. The struggle of many of Washington’s native species requires us to make immediate and significant investments in restoring our waterways and landscapes.

“This funding package will allow DNR to protect and restore salmon habitat and water quality, helping secure a future for our orcas, our salmon, and our way of life.”

Read the task force report.

 

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