Protecting Southern Resident orcas: What role do new regulations play?

In June, NOAA publicized major fines for a pair of recreational boaters. Their transgression: getting too close to endangered Southern Resident orcas.

Whale watch boats say it’s a growing issue, and point to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) rules that require they stay half a nautical mile away from the endangered orca for most of the year.

"The majority of whales that we do encounter here in the Salish Sea are thriving," said Erin Gless, the Pacific Whale Watch Association’s executive director. "Biggs killer whales, humpback whales, minke whales – they’re all doing very well, and those are the whales we watch most often. The Southern Resident whales–  we’re not nearly around at all, and they’re struggling and that’s because they don’t have enough prey."

Gless, and a growing number of naturalists, argue that whale watch boats can play an important role in protecting Southern Resident orcas. The idea being that their presence cues others to slow down and give whales distance when enforcement boats are not present.

"There’s been some increased enforcement resources here in Washington, but it’s just not enough," said Gless. "These whales cover a lot of distance sometimes. They’re spread out across a huge region – and one enforcement boat can’t do all the work that they need to do."

The argument, however, has not made a major change. In fact, while whale watch boats can still view transient killer whales – it seems likely they will have fewer and fewer opportunities to view Southern Residents in the coming years. It is not clear whether that trend will ever reverse either.

Several years ago, a task force was created to protect the Southern Resident orcas. They’re listed as an endangered species as their numbers have dwindled over the years for a variety of reasons. After countless meetings, research and arguments, an outline of how to best protect the specific group of killer whales was created.

Recommendations on increasing the survivability of the Southern Resident orcas – also known as killer whales – came down to three key issues: food, pollutants, and vessel noise. 

Scientists regularly say the main issue is prey availability. All whales face similar issues in Puget Sound, but the Southern Residents seem to be having the most trouble with local conditions: their food source, Chinook salmon, are also an endangered species. That’s left many arguing that the food is the most important issue – but some believe that the other issues can be fixed sooner, ultimately giving scientists more time to reverse the fortune of the Southern Residents food supply.

Noise pollution harms endangered orcas, scientists are rushing to find solutions

Scientists are rushing to learn more information about noise pollution in our local waters, while more vessels are projected to travel the Salish Sea in the coming years.

Originally, the governor’s southern resident killer whale task force came up with a recommendation to ban whale watch boats from approaching the entire population. It wasn’t enacted. However, in 2021 WDFW enacted new regulations that kept whale watch boats at a bigger distance than recreational boats for nine months of the year.

The compromise: whale watch boats can view Southern Residents in July, August and September – but only during two windows a day, and only if whales that are pregnant, deemed vulnerable, or young calves are not present. Since Southern residents travel in family pods – that’s regularly a large portion of the whales. In 2021, Gless said all the boats in her association totaled 60 hours of viewing Southern Residents orcas.

"Not quite an official ban, but just about," said Gless.

Gless believes that since whale watch crews are the biggest proponents of killer whales, they’re most likely to follow the rules – serving as a guide to recreational boaters that can’t always tell one whale from another, let alone know the distance/speed rules.

Others have argued that whale watch boats are essentially magnets, allowing boaters to key in on where whales are and attracting novice boaters into dangerous situations.

Julie Watson, WDFW’s killer whale policy lead, told FOX 13 that the rule-making process throughout 2020 got contentious – both sides refused to budge from their positions.

According to Watson, the agency ultimately decided that neither argument was backed up by hard science. They consulted with experts and decided that since vessel noise has been shown to have an impact, they’d err on the side of caution while they launched a study. Later this year, they’ll have two years' worth of data, but Watson admits it may still be too early to see what it means.

"It’s a really hard variable to study," said Watson. "It’s possible that the results come back mixed. We’ll have results to look at this fall, but I don’t know if that’ll be the big ‘aha moment’ that fixes everything."

WDFW understands that both industry and non-profit organizations are starting to collect their own data. That’s led them to put out guidance on what criteria they’re looking for, so they can weigh all the information that’s likely to come in, in the coming years. Later this year, they’ll put out some of their own data as they report to the legislature in November.

Watson said early results show that when enforcement boats are on-scene, recreational boats pose less of a problem. You can read more about WDFW’s monitoring efforts, here. 

Groups like the Orca Behavior Institute have put out their own early data, showing that the presence of whale watch boats drops speed/distance violations of recreational boaters. You can see a presentation of their early findings in the video above.