There’s little mystery remaining as to why Southern Resident Killer Whales — adopted by most Washington residents as an icon of the state’s diversity of wildlife and an object of pride — have dwindled in number some 20 years after bouncing back from the whales’ earlier decline in the 1970s when more than 60 were captured for aquariums.
From a high of just under 100 orcas in the mid-’90s among the three pods — J, K and L — that spent their summers around the San Juan Islands and other areas in the southern Salish Sea, about 74 killer whales now remain, joined in September by two calves, both in the J pod.
The hope raised by those two recent births is tempered, however. One of the calves was born to J-35, also known as Tahlequah, who gained worldwide attention in 2018 when — after her last calf died shortly after birth — kept the body of the infant afloat for more than a week, a reminder of the high mortality rate among orca calves. Since 1998, births have not kept pace with deaths among the three pods; 43 births against 78 orcas reported as dead or missing, according to records kept by the Orca Network.
Compared to three other West Coast populations of orcas, the Southern Residents are the most vulnerable to the conditions that we have created for them in the waters of the southern Salish Sea and the coastal waters of Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Specifically, those impacts include drastically declining runs of chinook and other salmon on which the resident orcas feed; impacts from vessel noise and traffic that hamper the whales’ communication and foraging for prey; and the presence of toxic chemicals from runoff and outfalls that effect the health of the whales and the salmon on which they feed.
Recognition of those impacts led to the drafting of 49 recommendations for action by the state’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force in 2018, with some actions now adopted in legislation and under way. Rule-making for one of the recommendations, however — seeking to reduce noise from vessels and allow the whales room to pursue and feed on salmon — has raised questions about effectiveness and unintended consequences.
The state, through the Department of Fish and Wildlife, is seeking to establish licensing and rules for whale-watch businesses. Along with a licensing requirement and existing rules that the whale-watch operators and recreational boaters already follow, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission is considering two options that would set seasons and days of operation for commercial whale watching. One option would allow operation for three months from July through September, with two two-hour periods daily; the second would add a two-month shoulder season but limit tours to Saturdays and Sundays.
The licensing and restrictions, whale watch operators say, are in effect a moratorium on their businesses and fail to recognize the limited impact their operations have on the whales and the role they play in protecting orcas and other marine life from vessel traffic that poses a much greater threat.
The whale watch boats serve as sentinels for the resident orcas and other marine mammals, said Pete Hanke, who leads the family-run Puget Sound Express, with whale watch excursions from Edmonds and Port Townsend.
“When the resident killer whales are in Puget Sound or the straits, we’re there to alert private boats about the whales,” Hanke said. “They’re not always aware the whales are there and will drive right over the top of them.”
The whale watch boats frequently alert recreational boaters to the presence of whales and can remind them of the distance and speed they are expected to keep, as well as modeling good practices. And it’s not just boaters, but state ferries, freighters and other commercial traffic that receive warnings about the whales’ presence from the whale watch crews.
Even so, strikes of whales by large vessels still occur. Among the most recent, a humpback whale was hit by the ferry Tokitae, on its route from Clinton to Mukilteo, this July, presumably killing the three-year-old whale. But other such strikes have been avoided.
Beyond the whale watch operations, the boats also are defended by several of the environmental groups that track and study the orcas and other marine species. The commercial boats, many which employ their own naturalists and photographers for the tours, provide observations and locations for researchers, Hanke said. Both of the two recent orca births were first noted and photographed by whale watch crews, who notified researchers.
Among those critical of the proposed whale watch restrictions is Ken Balcomb, a professional whale biologist and founder in 1979 of The Whale Museum and Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. In written comments last month to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, Balcomb disputed the restrictions’ effectiveness in aiding orcas, calling the proposed rules well-meaning but not well advised and “leaning toward ridiculousness.”
“Wasting the public’s money and attention of vessel issues on the west side of San Juan Island and Puget Sound is simply not going to help the (Southern Residents) survive,” he said.
What is needed, Balcomb said, is far greater emphasis on recovery of salmon runs and management of the fisheries. With the decline in chinook and other salmon species in the Salish Sea, the Southern Residents are spending less time in those waters, only about 10 percent of the year, Balcomb said.
Reasonable restrictions that build on rules now in place but respect the sentinel role that is played by whale watch boats are necessary but shouldn’t detract from attention required for the greater need to restore salmon habitat and runs. The most effective measures will be more difficult and expensive to accomplish than setting seasons for whale watch excursions.
Now under a U.S. Supreme Court mandate, the state will have to spend an estimated $2 billion to replace culverts and other salmon blockages downstream from spawning habitat. While such work is ongoing, the state Legislature hasn’t put the highest priority on funding additional projects. In 2019 just $100 million was allocated for the work.
And a new threat has been identified in a chemical used in the manufacture of tires. The chemical, 6PPD-quinone, is carried in runoff in the particles worn off from tires and is killing an estimated 40 percent of coho salmon returning to rivers and streams in the Puget Sound region, The Seattle Times recently reported.
And there’s little appetite among federal agencies and some leaders to consider removal of the four lower Snake River dams in Eastern Washington, which could vastly increase salmon habitat and build back chinook runs on which the orcas depend in the winter.
The effect of the whale watch restrictions, Hanke said, will not resolve the larger problems.
“It’s like setting a table with fine china but doing nothing about the food,” he said.