Keep vessels away from Southern resident orcas | Guest column

Keep vessels away from Southern resident orcas | Guest column

by Mike Conner, Sorrel North, Jean Behnke, Ken Akopiantz, Andre Entermann

and Roseamber Sumner

Editor’s note: According to the draft plan to the governor, the recommendation to temporarily suspend viewing Southern residents in Puget Sound applies to all boats.

Images of Tahlequah carrying her dead calf broke the hearts of people worldwide. This profound display of a mother’s grief spoke to a deeper issue, especially to those of us who live on the Salish Sea. We are witnessing the destruction of an ecosystem and the potential extinction of a unique, intelligent species, the Southern resident killer whales.

Governor Inslee’s orca task force has issued final recommendations, including a three-to-five year moratorium on commercial whale watching of the Southern residents. We wholeheartedly support this recommendation and believe it should go even further and include research and recreational vessels. The intention of the moratorium is to provide an urgently needed opportunity for recovery of this critically endangered species. It should last until the resident orca population is healthy and stable.

Issues such as dwindling food supply and contaminants in our waters must be addressed, but are long-term solutions. Over 50 studies confirm that underwater vessel noise interferes with the orcas’ ability to hunt successfully. Tanker traffic in Haro Strait has a big impact, but tankers are intermittent. There is no longer any excuse for the Southern residents to be pursued and surrounded from dawn till dusk by whale watching, research and recreational vessels.

In a recent interview, Tim Ragen, Ph.D., former executive director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, said, “It seems completely unreasonable that anyone would insist on vessel-based whale watching when the best available evidence indicates that vessel noise and disturbance are contributing to the population’s decline.”

Southern resident killer whales are unique in the world. These highly intelligent creatures are capable of speaking multiple dialects and even using cross-species communication. They have vastly enlarged limbic systems and a relatively larger number of spindle cells that indicate a deeply complex form of intelligence and emotional life. Orca whales feel empathy, love and grief and have profound family bonds. How can we justify exploiting them?

The whale watching industry garners tens of millions of dollars annually and is completely unregulated. Distance guidelines are impossible to enforce. While some whale watch operators are conscientious, others have been witnessed herding whales, positioning themselves repeatedly in the orca’s path, and otherwise interfering with their ability to hunt successfully.

Researchers and naturalists add to the problem. The Center for Whale Research lists as its main goal during an encounter to “photograph every whale present from both sides.” These research boats go out multiple times a week. A healthy young Souther resident died painfully in 2016 from an infected dart National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shot into its back. NOAA now plans to dart tag, with suction cups, the orcas in order to track their nighttime behavior.

It is time to leave the whales alone. We must give these magnificent creatures every possible chance to return from the brink of extinction, including restoring the Salish Sea to the biologically rich and healthy environment that they require. We believe that a moratorium on all vessels following or in any way engaging with the Southern resident killer whales is an essential part of this protective effort.

The authors are part of a group of Lopez residents spearheading a county initiative to create a moratorium on all vessels following or engaging with the Southern Resident Killer Whales.