San Juan County studies potential protected foraging areas for Southern resident orcas

The Southern resident orcas are starving to death, and providing quiet areas for them to hunt and rest could help turn their fate around.

Frances Robertson, who has a doctorate in zoology and is the coordinator for the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, spoke at The Whale Museum on Aug. 27 about the importance of establishing protected areas for Southern residents to forage.

“At the end of the day, the whale problem we have is a people problem,” Robertson said.

Robertson studies the effects that humans have on whales. She noted that in the presence of vessels, studies have concluded that salmon-eating Southern resident orcas spend 25 percent less time foraging for food than they would normally.

Protecting foraging areas for the orcas would allow the marine mammals the ability to hunt without the interference of vessel noise. Orcas hunt using echolocation, and studies have shown that ships, boats and tankers add substantial background noise to the water, thereby interfering with their ability to find food. Echolocation is when animals utilize the reflection of sound to locate items — in this case, salmon.

In an attempt to mitigate the cacophony of sounds that the orcas live with, a voluntary no-go zone was established in 1996 off the western shore of San Juan Island. It was a partnership between Soundwatch and the Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest, now the Pacific Whale Watching Association. The area spans from Mitchell Bay to Cattle Point, a quarter-mile offshore, extending to a half-mile near Lime Kiln — where orcas are often spotted from the shoreline.

Soundwatch Boater Education Program was created by The Whale Watch Museum in 1993 to prevent vessel disturbance to orcas in the central Salish Sea.

“That’s what we’re building off of today,” Robertson said of the protected areas along the shore. “The concept … is not new.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service first floated the idea of a mandatory no-go zone in 2009, the proposal was not welcomed, according to Journal articles from that time. When the agency returned three years later, it was met with opposition once again. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced its support of a voluntary no-go zone in 2018. NOAA has yet to make an official ruling on a no-go zone, though the agency supported the state’s action.

“These efforts have not always been well received or respected,” Robertson said, noting that most whale watchers have abided by the rules. The no-go zone is included in the Pacific Whale Watching Association’s voluntary guidelines.

Robertson said that the county is jurisdictionally limited, so it is creating a model engagement strategy to protect critical foraging hotspots of the west side of San Juan Island. The goal is to get a scientifically-supported answer to the question, “Where are the whales actually feeding?”

“We’re hoping that this will achieve a balance that is both protective to the whales but still offers traditional uses valued by the community,” Robertson said. “And, in a way, also produces templates that others… can take and implement to create an interconnected network of foraging areas.”

British Columbia is, in a way, already doing this with sanctuary areas around Pender and Saturna islands, Robertson said. In May, Marc Garneau, Canada’s Minister of Transport, issued an interim order prohibiting all vessels from traveling in select areas near both islands as of June 1. There are exceptions to the rule, such as residents needing access to their homes, pollution and distress response teams and First Nations.

The implications of the study are to improve habitat quality for the orcas, reduce impacts of vessel noise and presence in key foraging areas and to increase boater awareness, Robertson explained. She noted that it is bringing science and data to help prioritize conservation.

“Sort of getting back to bringing everyone to the table,” Robertson said.

There are four steps to the project, Robertson continued. They are identifying high probability foraging hotspots; establishing a noise budget; understanding fisheries activities; and understanding user groups’ interests.

“What are the social values associated with user groups using this specific area off the west side of San Juan Island,” Robertson said.


“The goal here is to identify and map the high probability feeding areas to inform this process,” Robertson said.

Executive Director of Oceans Initiative Erin Ashe, P.h.D., is working to update the analysis she made in a 2010 study, Robertson explained. Ashe is working with scientists from NOAA and with local conservancy groups collecting data to narrow down the high probability foraging areas.


A noise budget is being compiled with data from hydrophones placed in key places around the westside. Jason Wood, P.h.D., is a research scientist with SMRU Consulting who is studying the effects of noise on marine animals. He also controls the hydrophone at Lime Kiln Lighthouse in partnership with The Whale Museum.

Wood is utilizing two coastal acoustic buoys at a time, one is floating inside the no-go zone and one outside, to detect the ambient noise in both areas.

“We’ll be working our way up the coast as the summer turns into fall,” Wood said. “As soon as we get the go-ahead we’ll put [the next ones] out there.”

Wood said noise budgets are built based on how loud noise is at different pitches. With this data, scientists are able to understand the hours of the day during which sound levels are increased. With hydrophones, researchers are also able to quantify how often an area is used by Southern resident orcas.

Fisheries data

Robertson said she is also working with local fisheries to understand what they’re fishing for and when. The data, she explained, is usually cumulative and difficult to narrow down to just the westside of San Juan Island.

Highly valued recreational fishing areas are the same areas that are good foraging grounds for orcas, Robertson explained.

“We can get a reasonably good idea of where are the key fishing areas,” she said. “[And] when can we expect there to be high fishing effort off the westside.”

User groups

An important aspect of the project is to bring all the user groups together to be able to help guide the process and have some ownership, Robertson explained. She added that what she calls user groups are often referred to others as stakeholders. However, she’s been told that the tribes do not view themselves as stakeholders and as a user of the area, she respects that and calls them user groups instead.

“Pretty much everyone that has a stake in that area,” Robertson said. “We’re trying to provide them a space for them to voice their concerns to share what is important to them.”

User group engagements will begin this fall and proceed into next summer, Robertson explained.


Using the data collected, the project will culminate in a portfolio of options, Robertson said.

“The goal is you start with the data and not with an agenda, here,” Robertson said. “You commit to an objective, transparent, repeatable process.”

The portfolio can then be taken to NOAA, which can then be used to make meaningful changes based on all of the information provided. Robertson said the county could then take the options to the federal government and say, “This portfolio of options is something that is acceptable to this community.”

The end result, according to Robertson, will be something upon which everyone can agree.

“Not everyone is going to be happy, because if someone is happy, you probably haven’t done your job very well,” Robertson said. “Everyone’s got to give a little bit and everyone’s got to come together as well.”

Robertson explained that the community has to come to a sense of shared responsibility and sacrifice in order to save the Southern residents.

“We just need to come and all work together to try to come up with something that gives the whales what they need without taking too much away from humans,” she said. “Because we find it incredibly challenging to change our behavior.”

For more information on the San Juan County Marine Resource Committee and the projects it is working on, visit