The San Juan County Orca Protection Initiative
What will the San Juan County Orca Protection Initiative do for the Southern Resident Killer Whales (also referred to as SRKW, Southern Resident orca, Southern Residents)?
The SJC Orca Protection Initiative is an effort by our community to give back to the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas the freedom to hunt, communicate, rest, and travel with less interference. With a few exceptions, it would create a 650-yard vessel-free protected area around the whales when they are in San Juan County waters.
Why 650 yards specifically?
650 yards is the minimum distance needed to ensure that vessel noise and disturbance are not masking the Southern Resident orca’s ability to echolocate prey and communicate with their pods—activities vital to their survival, most especially finding and capturing their primary prey, Chinook salmon. Southern Resident Killer Whales use echolocation (the location of objects by reflected sound) to hunt and detect prey. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted a comprehensive review of how sound effects the SRKW population. The study estimated that under perfectly quiet ocean conditions, the farthest away a killer whale at the surface could detect a Chinook salmon at 65 meters depth was 650 meters away (1 meter = 1.09 yards). Vessel noise closer than 650 meters (or yards) shrinks the area in which an orca can detect salmon, thus interfering with their ability to feed themselves. Based on modeling results, the only way to ensure the whales have access to at least 90% of their echolocation habitat is to move the approach limit out to 650 yards.
Why should I vote for the San Juan County Orca Protection Initiative?
The Southern Resident orcas are in real trouble. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee created an Orca Task Force last year. Among many recommendations to help the population recover was a three-year moratorium on whale watching the SRKWs. The Orca Task Force concluded that these whales are in such poor condition, they require immediate relief from any stressors, including vessel noise and disturbance. Lobbying by the Pacific Whale Watch Association convinced legislators to eliminate the moratorium, as well as the first substitute bill’s 650-yard approach limit. Distance regulations were eventually pared down to 300 yards (400 yards behind), only 100 yards more than current guidelines.
Multiple scientific studies (see below) show that the Southern Residents are being negatively impacted by vessel noise, as well as disturbance by even non-motorized vessels, and that this disturbance is directly responsible for impairing the whales’ ability to hunt and feed themselves successfully. Restoring healthy Chinook salmon runs is imperative, but that may take years, even decades to accomplish. The SJC Orca Protection Initiative is something that we can do locally and immediately to give the SRKW population a better chance to pull back from the brink of extinction and recover to a healthy state. This is particularly important because the Southern Residents have historically spent most of their summers in San Juan County waters.
The Southern Resident orca need immediate relief while longer term solutions are being pursued.
A 650-yard setback would restore 90% of the SRKW’s echolocation range and allow greater foraging success.
Quiet waters equal more opportunities to catch and eat salmon for the starving whales.
SRKW status and population trends.
What is the current status of the Southern Resident killer whale population?
The SRKW population is listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and Canada’s Species At Risk Act, and is designated as depleted under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.
How many whales are there?
Just 75, including 38 females, 36 males and one of unknown sex. There are 25 females of breeding age but only 18 have produced calves in the last 24 years, and only one calf has survived since 2015. Four females are too young to breed. The population’s recovery depends almost entirely on the 25 females of reproductive age and the four juveniles, who may or may not live to reproductively maturity.
Are they recovering? What should we expect in the future?
No. By 1976, shooting whales and capturing them for theme parks had reduced their number to 71 individuals. Since 1995, when the population reached a peak of 98, the SRKW population has declined on average by about one individual per year to the current level of 75. In addition, the total number of females have declined in a similar fashion. The declining number of mature and, especially, immature females bodes poorly for future population growth.
Can the population recover without our help?
No. All of the main factors posing risk to the SRKW population are caused by human activities. These activities are not intended to cause harm, but they do so, primarily by changing the ecosystem that supports the SRKW population.
Human activities have driven the Southern Residents to the brink of extinction. Lengthy bureaucracy and half measures may be too little, too late.
Along with higher mortality among young orca, we are losing many adults in their prime.
The future of the population depends on its youngest members.
SRKW population threats
What are the main risk factors for the population?
(1) Lack of prey: The Southern Residents don’t have enough food to survive and thrive. Chinook salmon accounts for about 80% of the SRKW diet, but Chinook salmon runs have been seriously depleted by overfishing, dams and habitat destruction. Nine runs are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Washington State is considering several options to help restore Chinook and other salmon runs, but most experts agree that these measures will take years to implement.
(2) Vessel noise: The SRKWs hunt through the use of echolocation (the detection of objects through reflected sound). Underwater noise such as engines and sonar limits these abilities by drowning out echolocation, as well as other sounds used by the whales to communicate. In 2005 the National Research Council (part of the National Academies of Science) described how noise and disturbance cause the whales to change their behavior, including their ability to hunt, forage, rest, socialize, and travel. Those changes lead to poor condition and reduced ability to reproduce and survive, followed by decreased population size and increased extinction risk.
(3) Toxic waters: The Salish Sea, particularly inland waters, is showing a long term decline, adversely affecting many marine species. Orcas are apex predators, meaning the pollutants taken in by microorganisms are then consumed by invertebrates who are eaten by small fish, larger fish and on up the chain, with high concentrations accumulating in SRKWs. Many pesticides and industrial chemicals are found in the whale’s fat, including high levels of DDT and PCBs. When the orca lose weight, they consume their blubber stores, releasing toxic chemicals into their bloodstream. These contaminants adversely affect multiple organs (brain, liver, lungs) and various systems (immune, reproduction, nervous) leading to disease and impaired reproduction and survival.
How will this initiative help if lack of prey is the primary problem?
The purpose of this initiative is to ensure that vessel noise and disturbance do not interfere with Southern Resident orca’s access to Chinook salmon (and other prey) available in the Salish Sea ecosystem. Other important measures are intended to increase the amount of salmon available, but even if those measures are eventually effective, the whales still need unfettered access to those salmon.
By increasing the space between the SRKWs and vessels to 650 yards, the SJC Orca Protection Initiative will help ensure the whales have access to at least 90% of their foraging habitat, allowing them to hunt more effectively for the remaining salmon in San Juan County waters. It will also reduce energy spent on echolocation, allowing more time to socialize and rest undisturbed. We need to support other measures for recovering salmon and cleaning up the waters, but most of those measures will take years or decades to have an effect. The SJC Orca Protection Initiative is something we can implement now, immediately, to help the orcas catch the salmon available to them.
Why can’t we wait to see if the Washington State’s new measures are enough to protect the whales?
The orcas don’t have time for us to run experiments or take half-measures, even well-meaning ones. The status of the Southern Resident population is so poor and their risk of extinction is so high that limiting our efforts to intermediate measures will almost surely be insufficient. The most important reasons for us to act now are:
(1) The Southern Resident orca population is declining quickly and likely to continue its decline.
(2) As the population declines, preventing extinction will become more difficult and costly.
(3) Future generations will be saddled unfairly with fixing a problem we created.
(4) If the number of breeding females continues to fall, the reproductive potential of the population could decline to the point that the population may not be able to recover.
What about Canada’s new measures to protect the SRKWs?
Canada has just approved a sweeping new set of protective measures that go well beyond Washington State’s regulations. These measures include interim sanctuaries for the SRKWs that will be closed to vessel traffic in critical feeding habitats, as well as closure of recreational and commercial salmon fishing in parts of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Gulf Islands. Canada will also be implementing initiatives to support habitat protection and restoration of Chinook salmon. Some Canadian whale watching operators have agreed to stop taking tours to view the Southern Residents, setting an example for the whale watching industry to give the whales a break from vessel noise and disturbance. The San Juan County Orca Protection Initiative will act as a bridge between Canadian and San Juan County waters, allowing the SRKWs even greater protections while in their critical feeding areas.
If we want to save this iconic population, we must take immediate action. Washington State and Canada can work together to provide the Southern Resident orca with crucial protective measures.
Reproductive and population trends, especially among females, show a steady decline since 1995.
Females orca are not only crucial for reproduction, they are the teachers and leaders of each matrilineal pod.
Vessel Noise Impacts
What impacts do vessels cause?
Vessel noise and disturbance affect the whales by:
(1) Interfering with their ability to hear or detect prey. Noise from vessels interferes with echolocation, much like noise from a low-flying jet or in a loud restaurant makes it difficult to carry on a conversation.
(2) Interrupting foraging behavior. Vessel noise and activity means the orcas don’t forage as effectively as they need to and therefore don’t get enough calories to sustain themselves.
(3) Interfering with other behaviors, such as communication, socializing, breeding and resting.
Is there a relationship between vessel distance and effect on killer whales?
Yes, the noise experienced by a whale will increase as a vessel comes closer, in the same way any sound becomes louder the closer you are to its source. This is basic physics. As well, sound travels much faster in water than in air and over much greater distances.
Why is a 650-yard buffer needed—isn’t Washington State’s new 300-yard buffer enough?
Vessel noise and disturbance pose at least three important risks, and the best available scientific information indicates that 300 yards is not enough to protect the whales.
Masking is what happens when you are in a loud restaurant and have trouble carrying on a conversation. Vessel noise can have the same effect on whales, masking the sounds that they depend on for communicating, assessing their environment, and echolocating to detect and capture prey.
A 2008 study on the affects of vessel noise on SRKWs estimated that under completely quiet conditions, the farthest away a killer whale at the surface could detect a Chinook salmon at 65 meters depth was 650 meters away ((1 meter = 1.09 yards). As vessel noise increases, the area in which a killer whale can detect its prey shrinks. In effect, the more noise, the closer the whales must be to echolocate their prey. A study being prepared for publication uses a similar model to assess how the SRKWs foraging area shrinks as vessels approach. Their results are consistent with the 2008 study.
2. Changes in behavior.
Scientists have studied the effects of vessels on SRKW behavior. Vessel-caused changes in behavior include:
These behavioral changes have important energetic consequences. A 2006 study estimated that when disturbed, the whales are likely to expend 3-4% more energy and acquire (through foraging) 18% less energy, for a net energy loss of 21-22%. Given the poor condition of many whales, such energetic losses are a serious threat to the SRKWs health and ability to reproduce and survive.
3. Habitat degradation
Degradation of the whale’s prime habitat is the third impact of concern. The distribution of killer whales in the Salish Sea is not random and it is clear that the orcas prefer certain habitats. These preferences are almost certainly based on opportunities to forage, rest, socialize and travel safely and without interference. Noise and disturbance can only degrade the SRKWs prime habitat. Local fisherman, residents and whale watching operators have reported that the whales are starting to abandon their prime habitat along the west side of San Juan Island. Up until 2016, Soundwatch Boater Education studies consistently showed the SRKWs spent a majority of time in this habitat. These studies also showed the densest concentration of whale watching and other vessels in the same area. The whales may be moving because they are not finding enough food, but it also could be that vessels are driving the whales away from their prime habitat. Similar effects have been observed for killer whales in other locations in British Columbia waters. For example, a 2002 study documented the abandonment of habitat by resident killer whales caused by noise (an acoustic harassment device) deployed near a British Columbia salmon farm.
Isn’t vessel speed the most important factor—why not just slow down when close to the whales?
Vessel speed is an important factor in determining how much noise a vessel makes, but it is not the only factor. Other factors that contribute to noise levels include the number of propellers and engine type. A 2015 study found vessel speed to be the most important factor in predicting the amount of noise the SRKWs were exposed to, however, that and other studies acknowledge that vessel engines make significant noise even when they are disengaged. It makes sense that the faster a boat is moving, the more noise the engine makes, but equally important is the fact that an idling engine emits an average of 105 decibels. When multiple boats surround the SRKWs, even with engines disengaged the whales are experiencing significant acoustic disturbance. In addition, we know from observing kayaks near the whales that even non-motorized boats moving at slow speeds can still cause disturbance. Given the poor status of their population, the Southern Residents shouldn’t be disturbed by any unnecessary vessel approaches or acoustic interference, especially when trying to feed themselves.
Aren’t certain types of vessel noise more harmful than others?
Yes. The noise and disturbance caused by vessels are a function of a number of factors including vessel speed, type and propulsion system, as well as environmental conditions. The decibel level of a tanker is much louder than that of small watercraft. However, tanker traffic is periodic, while dozens of commercial and recreational vessels follow and/or surround the SRKWs an average of 12 hours per day from May—September while in their core critical feeding habitats, which include all of San Juan County waters.
How often do the Southern Residents encounter vessel traffic in San Juan County waters?
Interactions between vessels and Southern Resident orca peak in July and August when any particular SRKW pod will often experience over 100 interactions per day, with many days over 200 interactions observed with vessels. Many of the areas identified by the highest rates of interactions also coincide with the zones in which the SRKWs spend the most time, including their core critical habitat off the west side of San Juan Island. Although this area was designated as a voluntary “no go zone” there has been no marked decrease in the number of whale watching and other vessels during the summer season.
Are there any other impacts from vessels besides noise?
The SRKWs are among the most contaminated populations of marine mammals in the world, mostly by persistent organic pollutants (DDT, PCBs). Other threats imposed by vessel traffic on the Southern Resident population could aggravate diesel exhaust toxicity. PAH compounds in vessel exhaust are ranked as one of the ten most toxic substances in the disease registry. PAH exposure affects adrenal function; increases lung disease; causes cardiac, pulmonary, adrenal and gastric lesions; impairs immune system; and contributes to population decline. Marine mammal’s lungs are designed to collapse with the pressure as they go into the ocean abyss, which causes pollutants to be pushed into their bloodstream. A 2011 Canadian study predicted that killer whales are more sensitive to air pollutants than humans, and experience toxic effects from as little as 39% of the toxicity dose for exhaust gas exposure in humans.The SRKWs are exposed to whale-watching vessels on average of 12 hours per day during peak season, however, this study only considered a 1 hour exposure.
An approach limit of 650 yards is the absolute minimum distance needed to protect both the whales and their habitat. The critically endangered status of the SRKWs calls for a conservative approach until they have recovered.
Sound affects behavior which affects vitals rates which affect population abundance.
Certain types and levels of sound frequencies have a direct correlation to the risk of extinction.
Education and Whale Watching.
How would the San Juan County Orca Protection Initiative affect the whale-watching industry?
It would limit whale watching vessels, along with recreational boats, from approaching within 650 yards of the Southern Resident orca. However, the whale-watching industry has indicated that 85-90% of its business comes from watching other species, including gray whales, humpback whales, minke whales, harbor porpoises, harbor seals, California sea lions, and Steller sea lions.
Isn’t whale-watching an important conservation tool?
Under normal circumstances whale-watching can be a useful conservation tool if the whale population being watched is healthy or if the aim is to prevent people from harming the whales. In this case, the status of the Southern Resident population is so poor, it has virtually no tolerance for human-caused disturbance. Washington State’s Orca Task Force and the Canadian Department of Fisheries have both recommended a moratorium on whale watching the Southern Resident orca.
Do the Southern Residents alter their behavior when followed or surrounded by whale watching boats?
A growing body of scientific literature has noted that interactions between SRKWs and vessels has resulted in both increased energy requirements and decreased opportunities for energy acquisition. The impacts of these interactions are very likely compounding the stress felt by SRKWs in lean Chinook salmon years, especially in the context of the high toxin loads carried by the population. July, August and September are the months when Chinook salmon migrate through San Juan County waters to their spawning grounds in the Fraser River, British Columbia. This is the peak season for the Southern Residents to hunt and forage in their core critical habitat. It is also peak whale watching season. A 2006 study found that vessels were within the field of view of the whales 99.5% of daylight hours.
How else can people educate themselves about the SRKW population besides whale watching?
Interested people can learn about the whales from many sources of information such as pictures, videos and literature. For those who really want to see the whales in person, they can observe and enjoy them from the shoreline. The Whale Trail exists throughout the San Juan Islands and Washington State mainland, and provides viewing opportunities for locals and visitors alike.
Don’t the SRKWs bring economic benefits to the San Juan Islands?
According to the 2018 San Juan Island Visitor Study, the vast majority of visitors that come to the San Juans spend their time hiking, picnicking and beachcombing. Only 3% of visitors participate in whale watching tours. Also, the majority of whale watching companies that bring vessels into San Juan County waters are based in Canada and Washington State mainland. Those visitors do not spend money in San Juan County.
Do whale watching vessels help protect the Southern Resident orca by encouraging recreational boaters to behave respectfully and keep their distance?
There isn’t verifiable support for this and it appears to be just the opposite. It is true that recreational boaters may become aware of orca whales in an area because they sight whale-watching vessels. However, whale-watching vessels also act as a magnet, drawing recreational boats closer to the whales so that their occupants can whale-watch as well.
The 2018 Soundwatch Boater Education Study indicates that Soundwatch personnel observed at least 1,117 incidents in that year, including 56% that were potential violations of U.S. Federal or State regulations. That number was only a fraction of the actual incidents because Soundwatch observers were not present on all days. Most incidents involved vessels too close to the whales, positioned in the paths of the whales, positioned in the San Juan Island No-Go Zone, fishing too close to the whales, or approaching toward and/or departing from near the whales at high speed. The number of commercial ecotour vessels involved in such incidents declined substantially, which Soundwatch stated was “likely due to the PWWA updated guidelines, heightened awareness of the plight of the SRKWs, and societal pressure on the commercial whale-watching fleet.” Even with that reduction, the whale-watching fleet was involved in hundreds of incidents and, as observed in the past, such incidents were twice as likely when WDFW enforcement agents were not present. Importantly, recreational vessels still caused large numbers of incidents, which argues against the protective effect claimed by the commercial whale-watching fleet.
These and other statistics in the Soundwatch report for 2018 are compelling evidence that whale-watching vessels do not set a standard for respectful behavior and they do not have a protective effect.
Vessel disturbance is interfering with the SRKW’s ability to forage successfully in their core critical habitat.
The status of the Southern Resident population is so poor, it has no tolerance for human caused disturbance.
Jurisdiction and Enforcement.
Does San Juan County have the authority to regulate vessels in waters within its legal boundaries?
Yes. Just as the County banned jet skis within its boundaries in 1996 and created a 200-yard approach limit for the Southern Residents in the county’s marine waters in 2007, it can prevent vessels from approaching within 650 yards of the Southern Residents in County waters for the health, safety, and welfare of the Southern Resident orca and our community.
Don’t the new state laws that set the vessel distance at 300 yards (400 yards behind) preclude San Juan County from adopting more protective rules?
Our community can adopt more protective rules as long as they don’t conflict with federal and state laws. Neither the federal nor the state law requires local jurisdictions to allow boats close to the Southern Resident killer whales. Instead, they set the floor, and San Juan County can establish a more restrictive distance. The San Juan County Orca Protection Initiative would include the state’s 300 yard approach limit and extend it to 650 yards. The Orca Protection Initiative mirrors the new state regulations in most other ways, including disengaging engines when within 300 yards of a Southern Resident orca and slowing to 7 knots when within a half nautical mile of the SRKWs.
Would the buffer protect all killer whales or just the SRKW population?
The 650-yard protective buffer would apply just to Southern Residents, but operators should know that it is not always possible to distinguish between Resident and Transient killer whales. Vessel operators are responsible for their actions even if they mistakenly identify and approach whales thought to be of the Transient ecotype. Our Initiative states that if you can’t tell the difference between populations, observe the 650-yard approach limit.
How long would we need to keep the 650-yard protection in place?
Until the population recovers sufficiently that vessel noise and disturbance cause no adverse effects.
How will the protection area be implemented?
The Initiative would limit boats in San Juan County waters from approaching closer than 650 yards from a Southern Resident orca, or deliberately placing themselves in the path of a whale. If one or more whales surface within 300 yards, a boater must disengage their engine until the whales have moved away. Between 300 and 650 yards, if an orca surfaces, boaters must move slowly away at a speed of no more than 7 knots. If a boater encounters a whale in a narrow channel, they would be allowed to proceed at 7 knots or less, moving away from the whale as soon as safely possible. The Initiative recognizes that situations may arise (low visibility, safety and other weather related issues) that make navigation for boaters challenging, and accommodates for such issues.
What if an orca surfaces right next to my boat?
Vessel operators will, through no fault of their own, find themselves too close to one or more Southern Resident orca. The intent of the initiative is not to blame or find fault with those operators, but rather to instruct them in how best to respond to such situations in a way that protects them and the whales. The regulations are not intended to penalize well-meaning boaters who find themselves in unpredictable situations.
How will the 650-yard approach limit be enforced?
Current state legislation would increase enforcement capacity for statewide protection of the Southern Resident orca, including more enforcement vessels in San Juan County. Once the SJC Orca Protection Initiative passes, campaign organizers will petition the state to allow those officers, primarily the Department of Fish and Wildlife, to enforce the 650-yard approach limit in San Juan County waters just as they currently enforce Washington State’s distance regulations. As well, Orca Protection and Rescue, a private company, has agreed to monitor the new 650-yard regulations and inform law enforcement of infractions.
Are there any exceptions?
Yes, exceptions would include:
(1) Government vessels acting on official business;
(2) Federally-authorized scientific research;
(3) Treaty Indian or commercial fishery that is actively setting, retrieving, or closely tending fishing gear;
(4) Operations necessary to avoid an imminent and serious threat; or rescue or clean-up efforts for beached southern resident orcas:
(5) Ships traveling in shipping lanes.
San Juan County includes the ancestral territorial waters of the Southern Resident orca.
The Southern Residents are our neighbors and have lived in these waters for thousands of years. In less than 150 years, humans have decimated the SRKW’s habitat. It is our responsibility to help these whales recover and thrive.