SEATTLE -- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Wednesday released results from a 10-year study on the Southern Resident Orcas and identified three major threats to the protected animals: pollution, food availability and vessel noise. That last threat has the whale watching industry furious.
“They’re going after the commercial whale watch boats because we are the low hanging fruit,” said Pacific Whale Watch Association Executive Director, Michael Harris. “They need to show accomplishments in the last 10 years, they have nothing to show for their efforts.”
Lynne Barre, NOAA Fisheries’ District Chief in Seattle, said studies showed the orcas communicated differently when being followed by whale boats and would stop foraging for food.
She said new rules moving the boats back from 100 yards to 200 yards are being followed with mixed results. She added the agency is also considering a “No Go Zone” for a section of the orcas’ range in the San Juans, where boats would be forbidden to follow them.
“This new report provides insights into the threats facing Southern Resident killer whales, as well as new information as to why these whales are not recovering as quickly as hoped,” said Barre.
Reknown orca researcher Ken Balcomb called the results disappointing. He compared it to a slick corporate presentation designed to get investors, and in this case the investors are members of Congress who will be asked to approve money for more research.
Balcomb said the real problem is, has been and will be food. The Southern Resident Orcas feed almost exclusively on Chinook salmon. He said if the declining population of Chinook in Puget Sound and Canadian waters continues, the orcas will never recover.
The report recognizes the importance of food and puts it at the top of the following list of concerns:
- Chinook salmon make up a majority of the whales’ diet, particularly in the summer. Many runs of Chinook are endangered or threatened, potentially limiting the food source.
- Pollutants cause disease and reproduction problems in marine mammals. Southern Resident killer whales are among the most contaminated marine mammals in our oceans. Pollution and contaminant levels are particularly high in young whales.
- When vessels are present, the whales hunt less, travel more and modify their vocalizations.
- Future research is needed to answer questions like whether the new vessel regulations are successful in reducing impacts, how large an impact do high contaminant loads have on whale health and reproduction, and how large a population can Wednesday’s ecosystem support.