Suit seeks protection zone as more orcas die

Edmonds’ Puget Sound Express cites decreasing salmon as main issue
By Brian Soergel | Aug 22, 2019
Courtesy of: Puget Sound Express Puget Sound Express recently captured a picture of this member of the transient orca pod known as the T137 group

Whale-watching groups, including one that departs from Edmonds, are once again defending their practices this week after conservation groups sued the Trump administration Aug. 19 for ignoring a 2016 legal petition to protect critically endangered southern resident orcas in their prime Salish Sea habitats.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington state by the Center for Biological Diversity and Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance (ORCA), follows news that three more of the starving orcas are presumed dead, dropping their population to just 73.

The National Marine Fisheries Service was notified last August that its failure to respond to the petition violated federal law. The proposal calls for a rule to exclude vessels from the orcas’ prime feeding areas, a designated “whale protection zone,” from April through September of each year to protect the orcas from noise and disturbance.

A “no-wake” speed limit would apply to any vessels exempted from the exclusion.

But Sarah Hanke, a spokeswoman for the Hanke family, which owns and operates Puget Sound Express whale-watching tours out of Edmonds and Port Townsend, has a different view.

“The more news and media that drive attention to the whale-watch vessels and industry, who follow the safest and best practices on the water, the less focus is on the main issue, which is salmon and lack of sightings of these southern resident killer whales,” she said.

“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 southern resident orcas, in three pods, eat only fish, mostly Chinook salmon, which also have been in decline, further endangering the whales’ future. This is what should be focused on, Hanke said.

“We have been seeing transient Bigg's orcas, humpbacks, minke and gray whales all summer,” she said. “The population of whales in our area is actually growing. But for the southern residents, who only eat salmon, that is not the case. In the course of the whole summer, we have seen them a total of five times.”

Bigg’s orcas mostly hunt harbor seals in local waters, Hanke said. That may be helpful to their southern resident cousins, because harbor seals eat salmon, too. Hanke said an estimated 250-300 Bigg’s killer whales roam in and out of the area each year.

“This data tells the industry on the water that even if southern residents were here, there is not enough fish for them,” Hanke said. “That is what the media and news needs to begin to promote, or we won't have this family of whales to monitor and protect.”

This week’s suit also zeroes in on noise.

“These orcas are dying out and urgently need our help,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with ORCA, in a news release.

“Creating a whale protection zone in the heart of their habitat is a crucial step we can take today. Southern residents need more salmon and better protection throughout their range. But let’s start by giving them the peace and quiet they need to find food in the Salish Sea.”

Southern resident killer whales are starving because wild salmons run have been devastated by dammed rivers, streamside development and fishing, ORCA said. The missing orcas presumed dead – J17, K25, and L84 – all showed signs of malnutrition before disappearing.

In addition to a lack of prey availability, orcas are harmed by boat traffic and noise, which masks the echolocation they use to feed, navigate, and communicate, ORCA said.

“The southern residents flourished in these waters for thousands of years,” said Janet Thomas, ORCA executive director.

“They are among the most intelligent marine mammals in the oceans of the world, and are held sacred to indigenous people along the West Coast. They need their home back.”

Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force recommended 36 measures to protect the orcas in Puget Sound, including vessel restrictions in orca habitat. The legislature ultimately only adopted a handful of the recommendations.

Canada went further in May, announcing that no vessel traffic would be allowed from June through October in three “interim sanctuary zones” in prime orca feeding habitat.

“The task force made a number of recommendations in 2018 that were developed to increase protection of resident orcas,” said Port of Edmonds Commission President Steve Johnston, named a member of the task force this March.

Puget Sound Express’ two Edmonds boats, Saratoga and Chilkat Express, are based at the port.

“Several of these recommendations led to legislation in 2019 that increased stand-off distances and lowered the speed of boats operating in proximity to resident orcas, thereby decreasing potential vessel-related noise and disturbance.

“As noted, Canada has imposed mostly similar, but some additional, restrictions that include excluding boats from prime feeding areas (whale protection zones) within their jurisdictional waters for part of the year, similar to what the suit calls for.

“However, all in all, our primary future collective focus needs to be on restoring chinook runs and habitat, and the overall availability of chinook to resident orcas.”

In April, ORCA also sued the Trump administration to compel an updated analysis of how it says salmon fishing is harming endangered orcas; the administration has agreed to issue that analysis before May 1, 2020.

In response to another ORCA lawsuit, the Trump administration announced last month that by Oct. 7 it will propose expanding critical habitat protections to cover the southern residents’ full West Coast range.


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