Fight Rages Over Wild Orca Decline: Too Many Boats, or Not Enough Salmon?

Since 1995, there's a 17 percent decrease in the number of wild killer whales populating the waters off San Juan Island, Washington.

The Number of Wild Killer Whales is Declining: Too Many Boats, or Not Enough Salmon?

(Amanda Fletcher/Getty)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, 'Death at Seaworld,' was published in 2012.

What’s killing the killer whales of the Pacific Northwest? It’s an urgent question with complicated answers. It’s also the subject of a long-simmering, rancorous debate on Washington’s San Juan Island, where the battle took on renewed ferocity after a recent news report on a controversial plan to ban whale-watching boats along the island’s west side.

The idea of an orca “no-go zone” has been around for a while, championed by Orca Relief Citizens Alliance (ORCA), which recently formulated a new petition asking the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to bar whale-watching boats from coming within a half-mile of the shore along several miles of the island, an area that routinely attracts killer whales from April to October.

ORCA says the ban is critical because whale-watching boats chase and disturb orcas, causing them to expend energy unnecessarily. The problem is exacerbated because stocks of the whales’ preferred food, high-calorie Chinook salmon, have plummeted. The result, experts say, is malnutrition, stress, illness, and early death among Southern Residents, already an endangered subspecies.

But whale-boat operators, and some conservationists, scientists and activists, say the ban is unnecessary, does not address the collapse of salmon fisheries, and was originated by wealthy homeowners on the island’s west side, who’ve been known to grumble about noise from whale engines and tour guides speaking on P.A. systems.

One thing everyone agrees on: These whales are in trouble. This summer, only 82 Southern Residents returned to local waters, according to the Center for Whale Research. That’s a 17 percent drop since 1995, when the community had 98 whales. What’s worse, breeding-age females experienced a staggering 40-percent decline since 2004.

Government scientists who study these orcas identify three reasons: lack of Chinook; pollution, especially PCBs; and vessel noise. There is general consensus on salmon and toxins. But when it comes to whale watching, the fight is bitter and personal. At issue is the degree to which whale-watching charters contribute to the decline.

ORCA says the boats are a major threat, and a no-go zone is a quick way to address it. “In our judgment, motorized whale-watching boats are the heart of the problem, because of the frequency and extent of their operations,” says Bruce Stedman, ORCA’s executive director.

During years when Chinook runs are especially meager, “the constant pursuit of these vessels, lead to increased stress levels,” Stedman says. This causes their metabolic rates to go up, meaning an increased need for food. “When that happens,” says Stedman, “they start to starve. They draw down their blubber, which releases accumulated toxins that can affect reproductive capacity and their organs, and probably kill them.”

In 2002, ORCA commissioned three (unpublished) papers depicting the harm that boats can have on whales. One said that energy requirements increased by nearly 20 percent for adult whales, compared to years when few or no whale-watch boats were around. The second concluded that motorized boats may decrease orca sonar efficiency by 95-99 percent, and the third found a “strong statistical correlation” between whale decline and boat activity. Kenneth Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, vehemently disputes the veracity of these papers, saying that the authors “were paid to gin up research implicating behavioral responses to vessel presence, and they were embarrassingly biased.”

Charter boats carry more passengers-per-vessel, creating less traffic and pollution-per-whale-watcher, and allow large numbers of people to observe orcas in the wild, reducing their desire to see them in captivity.

Operators, meanwhile, resent being characterized as a greedy, powerful business interest, and complain that private boaters are more likely to harass orcas, but would still be permitted in the no-go zone.

ORCA is “targeting commercial whale-watch boats,” says Brian Goodremont of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. 

“Professional whale-watch boats account for only 12 percent of the violations of voluntary guidelines,” and just a tiny fraction are considered “serious,” meaning intentionally breaching the 200-yard limit, as set by state law. The others were private boats with an “unusually high rate of serious incidents, including lots of high-speed travel inside of 100 yards,” Goodremont says. 

The association says the ban would hurt business and damage the local economy. But some non-business interests are also opposed, because the debate detracts from solving the salmon problem, a far bigger threat than whale boats, they contend. 

“The proposed sanctuary is absurdly small, and meaningless,” says Balcomb. “The real problem is the Chinook salmon debacle.”

NMFS has a long-term recovery plan to fix the salmon problem, and dismantling dams is a major component. The Elwha River, on the Olympic Peninsula, once saw 400,000 adult salmon, including Chinook, returning to breed annually before two dams were built early last century. Recent adult runs were numbered at 4,000. Now, the dams are gone and the Chinook are beginning to return.

Howard Garret, of the Orca Network, says his group has “tried to say out of the whole boat issue, as it’s so contentious." Another member of Garret's group, Susan Berta, agreed. “Campaigns like this takes everyone's attention away from the more serious issues, and causes polarity and anger that divide the whale loving community,” she says, “It's really sad.”

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