Whale biologists know that it is primarily a lack of salmon that kills southern resident killer whales. That is, they do not eat enough, they are not observed until death. The whale-watching controversy is front and center again now, as a Washington State commercial whale-watching licensing program is open to public participation.
Read another point of view: To help save orcas, pause whale watching
We support a fair, beneficial and science-based licensing program, and believe that not the presence of whale watching boats will have unintended negative effects on whales. We encourage the public to learn more about the educational and sentinel role of professional whale watching and to provide constructive, fact-based feedback by the December 5 deadline. (A position paper signed by 10 regional conservation organizations may be a good place to start.)
The Pacific Whale Watch Association plays an important role in educating, protecting and improving the environment in ways that benefit the whales being watched. The association provides a platform to educate the public and inspire conservation. Members donate a portion of their earnings to search and recovery efforts; contribute to science by sharing observation data and identification photos; report stranded, entangled, sick or injured animals; notify the US and Canadian navies when whales are present near planned military exercises; and recover balloons and other debris from the water whenever possible. Association members were the first to see the two new J-Pod calves in September, and they immediately reported the news to the Center for Whale Research for verification.
The professional whale watching community fulfills a valuable watchdog role by educating boaters and modeling appropriate behavior around whales. According to annual reports from the Soundwatch Boater Education Program, boaters are responsible for the majority of recorded incidents involving killer whales. Instances of disturbance, harassment and near-misses by recreational boats are regularly observed when whale-watching boats are not present. Whale watchers work in conjunction with monitoring groups like Soundwatch and, along with monitoring vessels, they alert errant boaters by radio, wave whale warning flags, sound their horns and, in some cases, provide a physical barrier between oncoming boats and whales.
Whale-watching operators helped develop the “Be Whale Wise” guidelines and have rigorously adhered to the rules for many years. The Pacific Whale Watch Association’s industry practices go beyond state and federal regulations and have continued to evolve and improve over the past two decades. The captains and owners of the association have invested in quiet vessels to minimize noise impacts, and they have undertaken to voluntarily limit observation times. Association captains often choose not to see southern residents when other cetacean species are available, limiting the number of boats as a precaution.
We believe the Pacific Whale Watch Association is a great example of responsible and sustainable whale watching. The industry has become a convenient target for some orc activists, but such criticism is not substantiated by science. Bigg’s, or transient, killer whales, which have an abundance of prey here, continue to spend more time in the Salish Sea, and commercial whale-watching vessels have been watching them far more than residents in recent years. They experience more ship traffic in general than residents, and yet they thrive, emphasizing that prey is the primary factor affecting population growth for these two ecotypes. Lack of salmon is killing our southern resident killer whales and leading to a 69% miscarriage rate. Until salmon migrations are restored, we will continue to see the population decline. Continued attacks on whale watching take time and attention at the expense of meaningful recovery action and divide the whale community.
We hope that when the review of commercial whale watching licenses is completed, it will codify much of what the Pacific Whale Watch Association is already doing and continue to allow a small number of professional vessels to be on site with whales all year round. We also continue to hope that all orca education and conservation organizations will come together to work collaboratively on salmon recovery efforts to make a real difference for Southern Resident orcas.