Recent media stories, based on a June 1 press conference, implicate whale watch boats as the cause of the recent losses in the Southern Resident orca community. "Based on the research that we're releasing today, the primary cause of orca deaths appears to be boats," said Orca Relief. According to Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, these reports were conjectural. No evidence was provided to support the claim and there has been no independent peer review of the studies.
More reliable studies indicate that the orcas need clean, uncontaminated water and plentiful fish. While any boat traffic around whales must be respectful and non-intrusive, far more serious factors leading to mortality among the Southern Residents are the historic decline in salmon needed for the whales' sustenance, and long-term health damage due to persistent, accumulating pollutants such as PCBs.
Field research data presented by Dr. Rich Osborne of the Whale Museum shows that the population of the Southern Resident Community reached its highest peak at the same time the number of whale watch boats reached its highest peak. After 12 years of observation of boat/whale interactions, Dr. Robert Otis also found that the increase in boat numbers correlated with an increase in whale numbers along the west side of San Juan Island.
Ken Balcomb, founder and director of the Center for Whale Research, has studied the Southern Resident Community since the mid-70's. He has observed several periods when boat traffic was severe, and yet the whales did not decline in number. The captures of the 60's and 70's, the intense purse seine fishing through the early 90's, and the regular appearance of the orcas in Seattle during Sea Fair, when Puget Sound was filled with boat traffic including hydroplanes, all seemed to have no impact on the orca population.
According to Balcomb "We know from killer whale biopsies and necropies in recent decades that their blubber tissues contain elevated levels of lipophilic toxic substances, notably poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)." Balcomb cites the fact that J18, a young male who died early in his maturity, lacked immunity to common diseases and his sperm count was zero.
Though PCB levels have generally declined slightly in Puget Sound since they were banned in the 70's, they continue to accumulate over decades in long-lived mammals such as orcas, and are passed on to the young through the placental wall and in mother's milk. Present orca generations carry loads that may have begun to accumulate in their mothers' bodies even before they were born.
Of the three resident pods, L pod has lost the most members during the past six years. L pod is also the least "watched" pod, as it spends less time in inland waters than J or K pods. Also, the capture of 45 whales and the death by drowning of several others from this community in the 1960's and '70's removed nearly half of the population, leaving a ten-year gap in the number of mature/reproductive whales in the current generation.
Though the charges stated in the press conference were directed at commercial whale watch boats, any impacts on the whales from vessels would more likely be from private/recreational boaters who don't see the whales or know how to behave around them. Heavy freighter, tanker, and military vessel traffic year-round emits engine noise far louder than whale watching vessels. The whale watch operators who belong to the Whale Watch Operators Association have developed stringent guidelines, which they address and revise annually. These operators often serve as a good examples of proper boating behavior around the whales, and can help teach private boaters what is and what isn't acceptable.
In an address to the recent Orca Recovery Conference in Seattle, Ralph Munro said "The whale watchers are our friends." Whale watching has raised public awareness and support for local orcas. Whale watch boats educate several hundred thousand people a year about the whales and about the natural history of this area. When people see and learn about whales, they begin to care about whales, and the habitat they live in. The whale watch experience provides an ideal platform for informing the public about the real problems the orcas are faced with - toxic pollution, salmon decline, and habitat degradation due to over-development of our shorelines and islands. This in turn creates a constituency for the whales, who need strong and harmonious support when decisions are being made about stream protection and restoration, oil spill protection, salmon management, superfund sites, use of home and garden chemicals, and over-consumption of water, electricity and fuel.
Let us not lose focus on the real and urgent problems of salmon decline and toxic pollution. Let us each do what we can to help save our beloved orcas - support orca research, salmon restoration and toxic clean-up, conserve energy and water, eliminate use of home and garden chemicals, and vote for elected officials who will put a high priority on the habitats and inhabitants of Puget Sound.
By Howard Garrett of Orca Network