Save the Whales

Local efforts step up to protect Salish Sea orcas


What: Two if by Land, One if by Sea

When: 12 pm Sun., Jun. 25

Where: Boulevard Park


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

San Juan County officials and others are coming up with ways to protect Southern Resident killer whales. Suggestions at a June 6 council meeting ranged from more enforcement of current state boating regulations to a 10-year moratorium on catching Chinook salmon in the county, the Journal of the San Juan Islands reported.

“If we keep doing things the same way, we’ll get the same result,” said Kendra Smith, manager of the San Juan County Environmental Resources Department, about orca conservation efforts. “It’s important for us to look at ourselves and ask ‘What have we done so far?’ and ‘What do we think is working?’”

Six Southern Resident killer whales died in 2016, leaving only 78 at the start of 2017. In the 41 years of tracking orcas, a population lower than 78 has only been recorded four times, according to Center for Whale Research data.

Research has identified three primary threats to the Southern Residents—limited availability of their favored prey, Chinook salmon; the accumulation of toxic pollutants in their bodies; and the impacts of vessel traffic and noise. Concerns about vessel traffic in particular have escalated as the volume of heavy vessel and tender traffic has increased in tandem with fossil fuel export projects.

Studies indicate that the whales forage less in the presence of boat traffic, and boat noise may disrupt the echolocation clicks the whales use to find food.

Earlier this year, the federal agency assigned to monitor and protect threatened marine species, NOAA Fisheries, began assembling public comments on a petition that calls for a whale protection zone for highly endangered Southern Resident killer whales on the west side of San Juan Island. Environmental groups petitioned for the action, to establish a protected zone free of motorized boat traffic to promote recovery of Southern Residents.

As the Trump administration has scaled back the federal Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, local efforts have raced to fill that research and policy role.

Comments and insights collected as part of NOAA’s study will be used to inform efforts such as those considered in San Juan County to protect and restore these unique residents of the Salish Sea.

Other programs include ECHO, the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation program, a Vancouver Fraser Port Authority-led initiative aimed at better understanding and managing the impact of shipping activities on at-risk whales throughout the Salish Sea.

Under the lead of Krista Trounce, the Canadian program’s project manager, the ECHO Program is working with national and international collaborators to develop measures that may lead to a reduction in potential threats to whales as a result of shipping activities. The ECHO Program is currently managing a Strait of Georgia Underwater Listening Station to measure vessel noise levels, regional monitoring of ambient noise in the Salish Sea, and developing an assessment of the risk of vessels striking whales—believed to have been the cause of at least one orca death near Vancouver last year.

Central to ECHO and other efforts to protect and recover Resident populations is to better understand the creatures and habitat without disrupting their natural environment. Trounce will present the ECHO Program in a special presentation in Seattle this week in connection with the Whale Trail.

The Whale Trail is a series of sites where the public may view orcas and other marine mammals from shore. The mission of the organization is to inspire appreciation and stewardship of whales and their marine environment.

The Whale Trail is led by a core team of partners that include NOAA Fisheries, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Seattle Aquarium, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and the Whale Museum. The team in British Columbia is led by the BC Cetacean Sighting Network.

The Whale Trail was founded and is directed by Donna Sandstrom, who led efforts in 2002 to return an orphaned orca to her pod. The effort was captured in the NOAA documentary, Saving Springer: Orphan Orca.

“Through our current sites and signs, including two on every Washington State ferry, we reach more than 50 million people each year,” Sandstrom said.

The Whale Trail is currently adding new sites along the west coast, from California to British Columbia, throughout the Southern Resident orcas’ range and beyond.


Active Oceans: The ECHO Program
7pm Thurs., June 22
Dakota Park Place Building, 4303 Dakota Place SW, Seattle

“What’s the Point” beach exploration
10am Sat., June 24
Point Whitehorn Marine Park, 6899 Koehn Rd, Blaine
Learn about the Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve and Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve.Naturalists familiar with intertidal creatures and seaweeds, birds, native plants, forest ecology, and local geology will lead tours on an extraordinary stretch of natural shoreline teeming with wildlife

Two if by Land, One if by Sea
12pm Sun., June 25
Boulevard Park
Picnic and learn how oil transport threatens the Salish Sea. Paddlers welcome!

Photo by Lee First
Cover photo by Robin Agarwal aboard Blue Ocean Whale Watch.

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