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State of the Southern Resident Killer Whales

"The White Paper on Orca Whales"

Our position paper regarding the resident orca whales

Dear Friends,
Below is a position paper created during the past few months, which outlines the current facts regarding whale issues.

Many professionals and scientists who are intimately involved with the issues have reviewed this paper. This paper has also been submitted to the State of Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife, in response to their request for public commentary.

Gratefully, the Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest (WWOANW) has asked for permission to adopt this paper as their official position.

As the letter states, its function is to clarify the issues surrounding whale watching and our ecosystem. We have found that many individuals are confused by the rhetoric surrounding whale watching, and hope that this paper provides a resource for you to find the answers to your questions.

We also hope that you'll support the organizations listed at the end of the paper. Their websites give detailed descriptions of on-going research in many fields.
Thank you for your time and for your support.
San Juan Safaris

San Juan Safaris Position Paper

During the past few months, we have taken the time to examine the claim that boat traffic affects Killer Whale behavior.

In light of recent allegations from opponents to boat based whale watching, we thought it critical to focus on what the truth is. This is written for those seeking to understand the complex lives of killer whales.

To date, we have been unable to find any studies that have been published and peer reviewed in any valid scientific journal documenting the effects (positive or negative) of boat traffic on Southern Resident Killer Whales.

The State of Washington in their latest Status Report for the Killer Whale states "The potential impacts of whale watching on killer whales remain controversial and inadequately understood".

This paper sets out to clarify what impacts we do know of and how they are being addressed by various organizations.

Another goal of this paper is to shift the focus of any recovery plan away from commercial whale watchers and towards the more important issues facing our Resident Killer Whale population.

Next, it shows how commercial whale watch vessels are actively working to educate hundreds of thousands of individuals annually on the lives of killer whales. A high percentage of these are children. Our goal is that all these individuals become advocates of conservation both locally and globally, and help preserve our natural environment.

Finally, it provides the public and our community with a place to find answers. We hope that you will use the resources sited to make your own evaluations.

The Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest (WWOANW) has been pro-active in responding to public and scientific concerns. The Association has a record of working with The Whale Museum's Soundwatch boater education program since 1989. Soundwatch assures that our behavior is taking into account all concerns.

A recent publication "Be Whale Wise" is a collaboration of efforts by local, county, state, and federal organizations (in two countries) to educate the public about appropriate ways to view marine mammals.

It has been supported by: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), People for Puget Sound, Marine Mammal Monitoring (M3), Whale Museum/ Soundwatch, Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest (WWOANW), National Marine Fisheries, Marine Resource Committee San Juan County, and Veins of Life Watershed Society.

It is one of many ways these organizations educate the public about marine mammal conservation. These guidelines are viewed internationally as a model for responsible whale watching, and provide a template for communities to interact with all interested parties to achieve the most productive approaches to conservation and eco tourism.

"Commercial operators can be very influential and provide leadership both by example and by educating the public" (State of Washington, March 2004).

Our guidelines have constantly evolved in response to public image concerns, San Juan Island west side resident concerns, foraging areas, resting behaviors, and general respect for the whales.

We have even participated in scientific studies that could have underlying agendas to damage our industry. We will continue to be proactive and hold to our mission of educating the public about Killer Whales, marine mammals in general, and our wonderful ecosystem in a responsible way.

It has been shown that responsible wildlife viewing is one of the best ways to save sensitive ecosystems throughout the world. "Whale watching educates children and adults about our ocean planet, the magnificent creatures that share our world, and the importance of maintaining their habitat.

Whale Watching boats and crew provides a method for scientists to gain substantial information and monitoring capability with whales and dolphins and thereby contributes to their conservation" (Fred O'Regan, President International Fund for Animal Welfare IFAW).

We encourage you to view our guidelines, and see how whale watch vessels account for concerns regarding noise, air pollution, foraging areas, resting behaviors, and vessel impact.

We will also continue to work with and support any agency working to understand the lives of these killer whales. As you may know, there is research being conducted locally by the Center For Whale Research, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, NOAA, The Whale Museum, and others. The focus and scope of their research is diverse, and the WWOANW supports their legitimate research.

Recently, a supporter sent a letter to The San Juan Island Journal in Response to allegations by our detractors. We encourage you to read the letter posted 1/29/04 by Howard Garrett and Susan Berta from Orca Network.

Orca Network is an organization dedicated to raising awareness about whales of the Pacific Northwest, and the importance of safe habitats. Howard and Susan have worked in the field in many facets, and provide a wonderful resource for anyone interested in orca conservation, and general conservation in the Pacific Northwest.

In Howard and Susan's letter, they recommend discussing the factors impacting Southern Resident Killer Whales found the in Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife web site, which states "The potential impacts of whale watching on killer whales remain controversial and inadequately understood.

No studies have yet demonstrated a long-term adverse affect from whale watching on the health of any killer whale population in the Northwestern Pacific. Both resident populations have shown strong site fidelity to their traditional summer ranges despite 25 years of whale watching activity".

Howard and Susan's letter goes on to say the "Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest has been proactively developing and revising whale watch guidelines in conjunction with the National Marine Fishery Service, Soundwatch, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and other respected organizations".

We have conducted some of our own preliminary research into boat traffic recently. We've discovered that some of the highest numbers of boats in these waters were during the mid-seventies through the early nineties when commercial salmon fishing was at its height.

The number of boats varies from year to year, but the average is between 1200-1800 vessels, fishing day and night throughout the summer months (Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife). These vessels created a "city of lights" between San Juan Island and Port Angeles.

These figures account only for the American fishing vessels. We do not yet have accurate numbers from the Canadian Fisheries. We have first hand accounts of whales weaving in and out of the nets to feed. They came back for the salmon day after day, year after year, decade after decade. During some early years they were shot at and seal bombed because they were perceived as competition, and took their share of fish.

If our detractor's logic of "boats harming whales" were applied to the time period of heavy commercial fishing, we find some interesting results. We find that the population of our resident pods fluctuates independent of boat numbers.

We could make assumptions during some time periods that when there were more boats, there were more whales. However the point is to show, as many scientists have documented, there are many more variables other than boat traffic affecting resident killer whale populations.

Another fact often ignored by opponents to boat based whale watching, is that the two resident pods most frequently seen in this area (Pods J and K) have not only maintained their numbers between 1996-2002, but also now equal or exceed their highest numbers recorded.

The pod viewed the least amount by whale watch vessels is L-Pod, which is suffering from both low birth rates, and high mortality. There is research currently being conducted to help understand where these whales spend the majority of their year.

We call these pods resident, but L-Pod is the least resident of all three pods in the Southern Resident Community. This is one of the many variables that is vaguely understood. This type of research should be the focus of those people who have the whale's best interest in mind. These are the people we support.

Data from The Whale Museum Soundwatch program show the average number of vessels around whales to be 20 over the past six years. Of those 20 vessels, just over half (10-12) are commercial whale watch vessels (2003, The Whale Museum).

They make up of the other vessels in the average consist of fishing, kayaks, research, aircraft, and shipping (in order of highest % to lowest %)(2003, The Whale Museum).

If we compare the average number of commercial Whale Watch vessels to commercial fishing vessels between 1970 and 1995, we find at minimum, that the number of fishing vessels in mid June - late August was 100 times that of whale watching!

If there were a negative effect on whales due to vessel traffic, we would then expect significant losses in the Southern Resident Killer Whale population during this time period, or soon after. That is not the case. During this time period, the Southern Resident Killer Whale population appears to fluctuate independently of the number of vessels.

One subject often neglected by newer residents to the island, is that of the whale captures during the late sixties and early seventies. The most accurate numbers come from the most recent publication Washington State Status Report for the Killer Whale, March 2004.

This publication states that between 1962 and 1977, 224-256 whales were caught in the state of Washington. Of those caught, 36 whales were "retained" (sent to marine parks and aquariums), and 11-12 died in the process.

Most of the whales retained were estimated to be between the age of 2 and 6. To fully understand the impact of removing 36 juvenile whales from this small population and killing 11-12 other juveniles and adults in the process, you would have to look at the average survival rate, and average reproductive rate of killer whales in the wild.

Needless to say if only half those individuals survived with modest reproductive rates there would be many more whales in our Southern Resident Community.

This fact is undeniable, but often not discussed. Detractors from the real issues look at boat traffic, a "controversial and inadequately understood" (March 2004, Washington State Status Report for the Killer Whale) variable, instead of looking at what we know to be variables affecting Killer Whales:

First, we know there have been significant declines in prey.
Second, we know environmental contaminants result in many different negative health effects of not only Killer Whales, but many species in our ecosystem including humans.
Third, we know removing roughly 37% of juvenile individuals from a population has negative effects that the populations will always suffer.
Lastly, we know experimental sonar used by our military has been correlated with marine mammal mortality, and that sonar has been used in this region.

We were reminded recently of how close our sound is to ecological disaster. Commercial cargo and oil tanker traffic in Puget Sound is a time bomb, and poses one of the most significant threats to our ecosystem and way of life.

One mistake could change this ecosystem during most of our lifetimes. These are the issues we think deserve attention, and that is why we support the organizations listed at the end of this paper. You can find out more about them by examining their web sites, and how these diverse organizations are working towards preserving Puget Sound.

There is a final paper we'd like to cite with regards to whale watching, published by People For Puget Sound (June3, 2002). They summarize their view on whale watching by stating "stopping whale watching is not the right response to the whale's plight.

Toxic pollution and declining salmon runs are the main reasons why our whales are in trouble. We have to deal with these very difficult issues if the whales are going to have a chance. Whale watching could be stopped tomorrow, and all we would have accomplished is that whales would have fewer friends".

Ken Balcomb (Center for Whale Research, San Juan Island) is quoted saying
"One would think that if vessel harassment and acoustic disturbance were factors in population decline, the supposed effects (increased mortality, and decreased fecundity) would be noticeable in this era (during the captures), but the reverse is true".

Ken has been studying the Southern Resident Killer Whales for close to thirty years, and is considered an expert on their behavior.

People For Puget Sound goes on in this statement to list other factors, and recognize the Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest as deserving of appreciation for showing a willingness to assess and modify our "Best Practice Guidelines" to account for future concerns. You can request this statement from People For Puget Sound.

Our biggest disappointment has been defending ourselves from the inaccurate dissemination of information on these issues. It polarizes parties involved, and takes away from environmental capital, which is the time and energy expended by interested parties to resolve issues.

When this occurs, the whales lose. Those interested parties whose goal is to help the whales, are forced to spend time defending against those interested in selfish agendas. To paraphrase Edward Abbey " There is no need to lie about the environment, it's bad enough".

This paper was written to clarify the issues around whale watching, and to provide you with a place to find answers. We will continue conduct responsible whale watch and wildlife viewing and appreciate your support, as do the other organizations named in this paper who are acting locally, regionally, and globally on these issues. I've included a list of organizations involved with these issues working together to make positive changes. They are good resources, and hope you use them to find your own conclusions regarding these issues.
San Juan Safaris

Center For Whale Research
Department of Fish and Wildlife WA
Georgia Strait Alliance
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
NOAA/ Fisheries US
Orca Network
People for Puget Sound
Soundwatch / Whale Museum

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