Puget Sound whales get a break from boaters at no loss to whale-watching

December 26, 2017 by Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times

Restrictions on vessel traffic have helped keep more boaters farther from critically endangered southern-resident killer whales, while not harming the whale-watch industry, a new study has found.

Federal restrictions enacted in 2011 require whale-watch boats and other vessels to stay at least 200 yards away from whales. That's doubled the buffer. Yet whale-watch tourism continues to grow, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found.

Lack of food, high levels of contaminants in the environment, and disturbance by noise are the primary threats identified by the agency to the Puget Sound whales' survival.

The boat restrictions were intended to help reduce stress on the whales, which spend less time foraging and more time traveling when disturbed by noise, researchers have found.

Boise may also cause the J, K and L pods of southern-resident killer whales to spend more energy trying to communicate and echolocate to find food.

About 400,000 people a year from more than 20 ports on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border watch whales from commercial tour boats, more than ever, said Michael Harris, former executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

Helping has been the comeback of , which have provided reliable thrills on the water, and the healthy population of transient killer , the Canadian, marine-mammal-eating orcas. Abundant food in the region's booming seal population has kept their numbers high and sightings reliable.

The southern residents have been increasingly scarce in the past two seasons, perhaps because they are off hunting fish where it is more abundant.

According to the nonprofit Center for Whale Research and Orca Network, the southern residents were sighted in the San Juan Islands and Strait of Juan de Fuca area only 22 times from July to September this year, compared with 62 times in 2016. They used to be seen nearly every day from June through September.

Down to only 76 animals, the southern residents' population is at a 30-year low.

The study found the vessel restrictions to be more effective with enforcement boats on the water, with fewer violations by recreational boaters in particular (as opposed to professional tours) when enforcement officers are present. In the coming legislative session, Democratic state Sen. Kevin Ranker said, he will introduce legislation to provide about $500,000 to keep a dedicated enforcement boat and two Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers on the water five days a week in the north sound and San Juan Islands, during the prime spring and summer viewing season.

Explore further: Patrols keep US boaters in line, protect killer whales

Related Stories

Oldest Puget Sound orca, 'Granny,' missing and presumed dead

January 3, 2017

The oldest member of the small population of endangered Puget Sound orcas has been missing for months and is now likely dead, bringing the toll of dead or missing whales to seven in 2016, researchers in Washington state reported.

Recommended for you

In colliding galaxies, a pipsqueak shines bright

February 20, 2019

In the nearby Whirlpool galaxy and its companion galaxy, M51b, two supermassive black holes heat up and devour surrounding material. These two monsters should be the most luminous X-ray sources in sight, but a new study using ...

When does one of the central ideas in economics work?

February 20, 2019

The concept of equilibrium is one of the most central ideas in economics. It is one of the core assumptions in the vast majority of economic models, including models used by policymakers on issues ranging from monetary policy ...

Research reveals why the zebra got its stripes

February 20, 2019

Why do zebras have stripes? A study published in PLOS ONE today takes us another step closer to answering this puzzling question and to understanding how stripes actually work.

Correlated nucleons may solve 35-year-old mystery

February 20, 2019

A careful re-analysis of data taken at the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility has revealed a possible link between correlated protons and neutrons in the nucleus and a 35-year-old mystery. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.