Could a whale-watching ban help save southern resident orcas?
Washington state is considering a bold new policy to protect endangered southern resident orcas: banning whale-watching tour boats.
The proposed ban would see commercial tours barred from Puget Sound for the next three to five years, a move that could have a ripple effect north of the border.
An orca task force was created in Washington, and earlier this week approved the recommendation that, if implemented, would keep tour companies and recreational vessels away from southern residents. They would still be permitted to do orca-viewing tours, but would only be able to chase pods with more stable numbers.
At the end of the trial, the task force would evaulate its effectiveness before deciding whether to extend the ban.
"If we don't take bold steps, we're not going to get another chance," State Sen. Kevin Ranker said at a meeting Tuesday night.
"These whales are on their last leg."
Scientists believe disturbances from the boats have an impact on their ability to hunt and communicate.
The group is tasked with sending recommendations to the governor. Jay Inslee will then take them under consideration, and if approved, the group will help with a plan for implementation.
So far, they've developed 36 recommendations that focus on decreasing disturbance from passing boats, increasing the population of Chinook salmon and reducing exposure to contaminants.
Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries said she has hope the pod can be recovered.
"Southern residents have declined over the last decade, so this is really a chance for us to do all we can to address all the threats," she said.
There are 74 southern resident killer whales living in the Pacific Ocean – a pod that made headlines earlier this year after a female carried her dead baby for more than two weeks. The dwindling population has prompted recent boating regulations in Canada and the U.S.
Locally, plans to help the whales include the monitoring of vessel noise impacts on orcas passing through the Salish Sea. Late last month, the federal government announced Transport Canada would spend $1.6 million on measures that include deploying an underwater hydrophone at Boundary Pass.
The ministry also committed to a four-year project to better predict propeller noise, and the Canadian government has included a $167-million "whale initiative" in its 2018 budget.
A week ago, they added funds and new plans to cut back on marine noise.
"The federal government recently introduced some new measures to protect orcas. They will expand the distance boats have to stay away," provincial Environment Minister George Heyman said Wednesday. The hope is that keeping boats back will reduce the impact of their underwater noise.
While there are no plans yet involving whale watching tours, Heyman said the B.C. NDP would team up with Ottawa to protect those that could be affected.
"We would obviously work with the federal government, ensuring that industries and jobs are protected," he said.
Tourism Minister Lisa Beare said the industry is an important sector in the province, offering a unique experience visitors can't get anywhere else.
But, she added, "there's so many fabulous things to do in British Columbia and especially along the coast. People choose B.C. for a number of reasons, not just whale watching."
Losing business isn't a huge concern for one Victoria-based company, but it's possible an end to tours could mean a loss of opportunities for information and education.
"Many of us are taking photographs, collecting data, so a huge attribute for the scientific community," Prince of Whales' Mark Malleson said.
That's one reason why University of British Columbia professor Andrew Trites doesn't think the ban is the right answer.
"We don't ever talk about what's happened to the food supply… The irony is that the whale-watching industry that takes out many, many people in each boat, they know the whales better than anybody else," said Trites, the director of UBC's Marine Mammal Research Unit.
"Nothing's being talked about for all the small pleasure boaters that are roaring around."
Other issues need further study before B.C. jumps onboard, he said.
With a report from CTV Vancouver's Allison Hurst