Category Archives: vessel interactions

Ruckelshaus suggests whale watchers be more precautious

Today Tacoma’s News Tribune offers a story about the imminent issuing of new rules for watching southern resident killer whales.  This story confirms Donna Darm’s recent mention of the regulations being currently under review at OMB.  It remains to be seen whether the rules will be issued in time for the whale watching industry and killer whale researchers to plan accordingly for the upcoming season.

While the story isn’t quite accurate about the state of bioacoustic science, it does contain a fascinating juxtaposition of quotes — from former EPA administrator and Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council Chair Bill Ruckelshaus, and former President of the Pacific Whale Watch Association Shane Aggergaard.  (Why wasn’t current President Bill Wright quoted?)  This exchange of perspectives reminded me that someone needs to create a synopsis and analysis of the diverse public comments on the proposed vessel regulations, particularly those (30 Mb of) comments from the whale watch industry.

Underwater noise pollution affects calls but not clicks (yet)

The article states that “Research shows engine noise can interfere with the whales’ ability to find food.”  That’s a little unclear.  What has been shown for southern residents (Holt, et al., 2009) is that underwater noise from nearby boats makes killer whales call louder.  If those calls are important for foraging, then the boat noise could affect the whales’ ability to find food.  The greater potential impact of vessel noise on their ability to forage is masking of the echolocation clicks they use to target salmon.  That is a focus of on-going observational and modeling efforts.

Ruckelshaus pwns Aggergaard

My favorite quote is from Bill because it suggests that the whale watching industry should take a broader, longer view of conservation science and policies:

Anytime you have an endangered species you always have somebody who is adversely impacted by the efforts to save the species, and they are very skeptical about the science that shows what they’re doing is causing any harm. The whale watch boats are equally dependent on the health of the orcas as are people who are concerned about them as a species.

He didn’t quite deliver the punch line for which I was hoping: a sustainable whale watching industry would lead in the reduction of all risks identified in the recovery plan — not just donating time and money to save Pacific salmon or working to clean up persistent pollutants, but proactively reducing potential vessel effects in accordance with all available science and the precautionary principle.  Why not support the proposed vessel regulations — even propose to strengthen them (e.g. by adding a 7 knot speed limit within 400 yards throughout their critical habitat despite enforcement logistics), enjoy the short-term PR benefits of setting a stellar example, invest in binoculars and range finders, and then work with NOAA to abate the economic impacts (relax the rules, re-hire workers, grow the fleet) later if recovery occurs and new research justifies being less conservative?

Instead the Association has been vociferous about weakening the rules, questioning or cherry-picking the science, and down-playing vessel impacts. Their public comments include:

“the equation seems simple as too few fish, likely means too few whales” [pg. 3 of 250 pg PDF]

“So let’s get effective Killer Whale Viewing Regulations in place and let’s put all of our collective energies
into the really important steps of Salmon Stock Restoration and Pollution Clean-up and Prevention. All the
houses around us are burning and we are keeping our house safe by spraying the roof and walls with a
garden hose.” [pg. 6]

$1-10k fines for proximity to orcas

It’s nice to see WDFW making public (see below) the consequences of violating the State and Federal laws governing how vessels may interact with killer whales.  I’ve added these details to the Beam Reach wiki page regarding orca-boat rules.

WDFW NEWS RELEASE
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
600 Capitol Way North, Olympia, WA 98501-1091

http://wdfw.wa.gov/

June 1, 2010

Rocky Beach, (360) 902-2510

WDFW cautions boat owners
to steer clear of orca whales

OLYMPIA – With summer approaching, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is reminding recreational boaters to give orca whales and other marine mammals a wide berth.

State law requires boaters to stay at least 100 yards away from southern resident orca whales. Boaters who unexpectedly come into closer proximity to an orca are required to stop immediately and allow the whales to pass.

These and other state regulations apply to a variety of small watercraft, including tour boats, private powerboats, sailboats, kayaks, canoes and personal floatation devices.

Federal law also includes broad restrictions against disturbing or harassing any marine mammal, said Mike Cenci, WDFW’s deputy chief of enforcement.

“Boaters have a responsibility to keep their distance from these amazing animals,” Cenci said.  “Human disturbances, including boat traffic, can interfere with their ability to feed, communicate with one another and care for their young.”

Cenci noted that WDFW has issued 10 citations and dozens of warnings to recreational boaters since 2008, when the Legislature approved the state law regulating boating activity around orca whales.

Violating the state law can result in a fine of up to $1,025. The maximum fine under federal law is $10,000.

The southern resident orca population, which currently includes about 90 whales, is classified as “endangered” by both the State of Washington and the federal government.

Those animals, which mostly travel the waters of northern Puget Sound, account for the majority of orca whales found in Washington from early spring to late fall, said Rocky Beach, WDFW wildlife diversity division manager. Major threats to their survival include the declining abundance of salmon, exposure to pollutants and disruptions from passing vessels.

Under state law, it is unlawful to:

  • Approach within 100 yards of a southern resident whale.
  • Cause a vessel or other object to approach within 100 yards of a southern resident whale.
  • Intercept a southern resident whale by remaining in its path until it comes within 100 yards of a vessel.
  • Fail to disengage the transmission of a vessel that is within 100 yards of a southern resident whale.
  • Feed a southern resident whale.

Additional information about the state law is available on the WDFW website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/diversty/soc/orca/ . Whale-watching guidelines are available at http://www.bewhalewise.org .


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Visit the WDFW News Release Archive at:
http://wdfw.wa.gov/do/newreal/

Orca refuge: a gift for endangered killer whales

Mother and calf seeking refuge

This Friday, January 15, 2010, is the deadline for public comment on the proposed orca conservation area along the west side of San Juan Island. All marine conservationists should consider commenting on these precedent-setting rules: comment via email | comment via web form.  (Official background and the PDF of proposed rule are on the NOAA web page.)

If you are short on time, you can simply sign the petition in support of the proposed rules.  The petition will be submitted to NOAA by the comment deadline.

Give a New Year’s gift to the southern residents  — comment on these precedent-setting rules before midnight (EST for web submittal; PST for emailed comments) this Friday, January 15, 2010: comment via email | comment via web form.

“Current regulations in the U.S. to protect marine mammals stem from the whaling era and focus on prohibiting individual acts that harm marine mammals.  If our society is to protect marine life from today’s threats, the regulatory process will need to change to protect the quality of habitats on which marine mammals depend.” — Peter Tyack, Physics Today, November, 2009.

Researchers call for orca conservation zone in B.C.

Dec 23 Vancouver Sun article about a forth-coming science paper that proposes a conservation zone that overlaps with the proposed orca sanctuary boundaries:

Wildlife researchers have identified the key feeding area for a critically endangered population of killer whales near Vancouver Island and proposed the creation of a unique, miniature conservation zone for the few square kilometres encompassing the animals’ favourite seafood restaurant.

The international team of scientists, including University of British Columbia biologist Rob Williams and colleagues from Britain and the U.S., spent four months in the summer of 2006 painstakingly monitoring the movements of a three-pod population of killer whales in waters off B.C. and Washington state that numbers just 87 individuals — so few that every animal has been identified from distinctive markings.

The researchers found the whales were about three times more likely to feast on Chinook salmon — their preferred meal — in a narrow coastal strip south of Washington’s San Juan Island than anywhere else in their summer range.

In an article published in the latest issue of the journal Animal Conservation, the scientists propose strict protections on this whale-dining “hot spot,” arguing that the no go zone is small enough to establish a practical system for diverting all boat traffic but large enough to guarantee the whales unfettered feeding.

“Protecting even small patches of water can provide conservation benefits, as long as we choose the spots wisely,” said lead researcher Erin Ashe, a biologist at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, in a summary of the study.

+3dB noise reduces ‘effective listening area’ 30%

AE.org - website of the Acoustic Ecology Institute

Jim Cummings of the Acoustic Ecology Institute has posted another great synopsis of an important new bioacoustics paper that has big implications for southern resident killer whales.  After defining a new bioacoustic metric “effective listening area” (which is MUCH more intuitive than “active space”), the authors clarify how slight increases in ambient noise can have big impacts for animals that need to listen to sounds that are normally barely audible.

The authors note analyses of transportation noise impacts often assert that a 3dB increase in noise – a barely perceptual change – has “negligible” effects, whereas in fact this increased noise reduces the listening area of animals by 30%. A 10dB increase in background noise (likely within a few hundred meters of a road or wind farm, or as a private plane passes nearby) reduces listening area by 90%.

We know that most commercial ships and recreational boats raise the ambient noise levels near killer whales by 20-30dB for periods of ~30 or 3 minutes, respectively, as the vessels and whales pass by each other.  Clearly it is time to articulate in what common situations the southern residents need to perceive barely audible signals — like distant inter-pod communication signals or echolocation returns from prey — and to model the reduction in listening area during typical noise exposures.  This paper suggests the results may be disconcerting even though southern residents are keystone predators (though one has to wonder if transients appreciate the advantage of the acoustic cloak a noisy freighter offers when trying to pick off a resident calf).

Scientific literature reference:
Barber, Crooks, Fristrup. The costs of chronic noise exposure for terrestrial organisms. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 2010.
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Seattle Metropolitan on orcas raising their voices

WhalesInteresting to see the Holt et al, 2009, paper still in the popular press.  This article provides a nice summary and connects the study to the proposed orca-vessel regulations.

http://www.seattlemet.com/issues/archives/articles/orcas-salmon-1109/

NOAA vessel rules rejected at Seattle Aquarium

Comment crowd and Lynne

Audience, Lynne, and the big tank of fish

<More photos>

Just back from the meeting in which NOAA invited the public to comment on the proposed rules for vessel-orca interactions.  Before a captive audience of Pacific salmon and rockfish, the 2.5 hours of public comment was dominated by the commercial whale watch, recreational and commercial fishing, and kayaking industries.  It seems like a repeat of the Anacortes meeting, described in this Anacortes Now article, except that tonight NOAA’s facilitator kept nearly everyone abiding by the ground rules.

Overall, there were strong objections to the entire suite of alternatives — from the 200 yard viewing distance to the no-go zone.  People for Puget Sound went on record saying that a no-go zone was a step too far.  And Ken Balcomb voted for no action.

I was left with a profound disappointment that so many felt so unfairly burdened by the proposed rules.  If the people who most intimately and consistently share the southern resident’s habitat aren’t willing to make a sacrifice to preserve the basis of their livelihoods, how can we expect the public to act selflessly for our regional icons: the orca and the salmon?

From the captains and operators of the whale watch fleet I heard dire forecasts of impending economic doom, though they would be unlimited by NOAA in 100′s of square kilometers of critical habitat, including areas that might conceivably have been included in a no-go zone: Hein and Middle banks and the rest of the west side of San Juan Island.  From the recreational and commercial fishers I heard that the west side of San Juan Island is sacred salmon fishing ground, though NOAA did not ban them from Eagle Point, Salmon Bank, or Turn Point.  And from the kayakers I heard dismay, when I can imagine trips around Henry Island or through Cattle Pass that offer adventure and orca-viewing on par with what the central west side offers.  While some speakers had delved deeply into the text of the rules and the scientific literature, many made specious assertions about the underlying science and countered with unconvincing anecdotes and generic concerns about correlation not implying causation.

I failed to finish my comments in the allotted 2 minutes.  Those that I fit in are below within the notes I took during the comment session.  But my closing thought was this: What could we humans accomplish on the tough problems of salmon and pollutants if we first succeeded in sacrificing together to reduce this most-tractable extinction risk — vessel interactions.  On a night when I expected suggestions for how to do more to help the whales, I heard only selfish whining.

For those unfamiliar with the extant and proposed regulations, here is a wiki of rules guiding vessel interactions with killer whales.

Live blog from Seattle Aquarium

These are rough personal notes (not quotes!) taken on the fly during the meeting.  NOAA has the complete record.

19:15 Overview by Lynne Barre

19:30 Public comment begins

19:31 CCA opposes impacts on recreational fishers

19:34 Bob Franks, commercial fisher from Gig Harbor: In 1989, there were 72000 boat hours/year and SRKWs were fine.  Now we’re at 1200 boat hours/year and SRKWs are in decline.  Where are the data that implicate commercial fishing vessels?

19:37 Frank, Fidalgo Chapter Puget Sound Anglers: 1/2 mi standoff will have dire consequences for recreational fishers.

19:39: VP of Puget Sound Anglers: While fishing on west side I’ve seen orcas foraging all around us without concern.  Sport fishers are the eyes and ears of the salt water.  They carry on as if we’re not there.  Recreational fishing has no adverse impact on these wonderful marine mammals.

19:42: Ken Balcomb: We noted KWs swam down sound past all fishing vessels twice per year and came down for Sea Fair (4000 boats).  In all these years there has been no evidence of a boat hitting a killer whale.  “My vote is that we take no action, alternative one.  I think we should collectively shelve it somewhere between Alice in Wonderland and Don Quixote.”

19:45: Mark Anderson: There is a scientific consensus that the orcas are starving.  The three legged stool has only two legs now: lack of fish and vessel interactions.  UW study showed mortality goes up with boat concentration.  Economic impact is likely bigger than in the rule’s analysis.

19:48: Bob Keiko, Purse Seine industry rep, Fraser sockeye/pink fishery rep: This no-go zone is a prime fishing area.  Fraser Pink and sockeye migrate through the Straits and their first land impact is the west side of San Juan Island.  The commercial fishery is limited to ~5 days/year.  It’s wrong to assume that the fleet can just go somewhere else to fish.

19:51: Larry Carpenter, owns 2 boat dealerships, spent 1000s of days on west side San Juan Island.  Chinook returns are adequate for fishers and killer whales due to 30% reduction of Canadian catch on outer Vancouver Island.  Foraging and pollution conditions are improving.  We in the recreational fishery are a huge part of the solution.

19:53: Roland Skogley, citizen:

19:56: Cedric Towers, Vancouver Whale Watch operating 7mo/yr; Pacific Whale Watch Association wants to stick with 100yd global standard.  Educational value from professional naturalists is lost at 150-250 yards.  We’ve been experimenting all summer.  I’m going to be out of business.  Customers say they aren’t interested in watching from 200 or 250 yards.

19:59: Speaker for the sea kayak fleet: The no-go zone eliminates nearly all kayakers from west side San Juan Island.  Kayaks are the only silent vessels and our viewing is comparatively brief.

20:00 Rick Thompson, Canadian whale watcher for 10 yrs, 30 yrs commercial fisherman: I don’t see many changes and they seem well-fed this year by the spring returns of this year and last.  My company has 25 people and our oral survey suggests 80% of our customers would forego whale watching at >100yds.

20:03: Ann individual kayaker

20:05: Kayaker for 17years west side San Juan Island: Ban of kayaking isn’t fair

20:11 Rain, Seattle resident

20:17 Peter, whale watch operator: This is onerous.  We educate 10′s of 1000s of people per year.

20:18 Troy, 30 years fished west coast, fought rock cod fishery closures in CA: you’ve managed to pull groups together that don’t like each other.

20:21 People for Puget Sound: restoration of salmon run, reduction of toxins, countering of sonar-like noises.  We agree that vessels are a risk.  We support 200yd, but think no-go zone is too far.  Where is the orca in the orca recovery plan?

20:23 Anna Hall biologist and Prince of Whales captain for 15 years: I’m in full support of species protection as well as the public education that happens on the whale watching boats.   Consider the PWWA proposal.

20:26 Eric Shore, owns Anacortes Kayak Tours and has 20yrs on west side of SJI, about 1000 days with whales.

20:27 Alan McGilvry: “The science is anecdotal, it’s not reproducible, and doesn’t follow scientficic method.  The whale watch industry is part of the solution and we’re here for you.”

20:30: Another whale watch Captain for 25yrs in Floriday, Hawaii, NW 129 people/day

20:32: Dan Kukat, owner of Springtime Charters for 15yrs, charter fishing for 20years.  Canada commends U.S. fishery conservation: Unless there’s food on the table, none of us can live.  Basic economics and passenger testimony say these rules will raise impacts on killer whales by diminishing public education and awareness of the real risks.

20:35 Ken, Seattle Resident: Gas works park contamination sample.

20:36: 20yrs boating interactions mostly with J pod: J pod increase since 1970s.

20:38: Works for Clipper Navigation and long career on water: Please don’t restrict others from seeing them up close.

20:39: Darrel Bryan, CEO Victoria Clipper: How were oral comments in Anacortes not fully recorded?  Why was procedure changed during the meeting?  Did NOAA leave the rule open to legal challenge by altering the rule-making process?

20:42: 47 yr WA resident, sport fisher on west side every summer: What scientific proof do you have that killer whales are not getting enough food on this route.  Orcas are operating in no-go zone because that’s where the fish are.  Pinks come in on in-coming tide and are often scattered by killer whales.  What impediment do few sports fishermen pose if orcas can operate during commercial openings.  In 1962 there were no salt-water fishing licenses!  We have less fish than in 1962 and all we have is more and more restrictions.

20:45 James Dale, 5 star whale watching: I’ve supported recovery planning process for 15 yrs, but am concerned we’re going to get distracted by these regulations from truly meaningful actions.

20:47 Dan, Save our wild salmon

20:51 Shane Aagergard, owns Island Adventures

20:54 Angler expert: economic impacts on recreational fishers may be underestimated

10:56 West side resident: supports 200yd, why is acoustic

10:58 Fred Felleman, west side home-owner and orca biologist: Now there are more boats than whales.  Clearly marine education on the water is a contributor.  Congratulations to NOAA on attracting substantially more public comment than in recent Navy EIS comment meetings.  Go slow, not no go.

21:08 Peter Henke: Enforcement is lacking and enforcement boats have been wreckless.

21:21 WW operator: I’m torn because sometimes it is a zoo out there, but I see a lot of good educational value.

21:23 Annette sea kayaker

21:25 Commercial non-treaty fisherman supports access to no-go zone

21:25 Kowichan Bay operator:

21:27: Peter, Westcott Bay resident: supports all aspects of rule; easy to document inappropriate

21:31; Shane Elwin: Illegal to pursue so supports limits on commercial whale watching.  Relax rules re kayaking.

21:34: Sarah sea kayak guide:

21:36 Thomas Star, Water Trail: We need better enforcement.

21:38: Derrick Mitchell, kayaker

About 5 others, including me.

~21:46 Scott Veirs, WA resident for 15 yr, PhD oceanography, 5 seasons running Beam Reach, co-author of “KWs Speak up”: Will provide written comments, but want to speak as father of 2 young children who love the orcas.  Who is speaking conservatively for the whales?  Whale watch and fishing interests are clearly much better organized than orca-advocacy community!  Why not support a refuge for SRKWs?  Though Beam Reach may be impacted as a business, I support 200 yard limit and no-go zone.  In fact, I ask why the no-go zone does not include the Eagle Point to Salmon Bank, a region which many consider a foraging hot spot along the west side. BR has not joined the PWWA because the Association does not strike an acceptable balance between (what appears tonight like) economic greed and ecological value, and does not take a precautionary approach.

21:53: Finished with public comment.