Orcas: Are We Loving them to Death?

Local News Station Exposes the Dark Side of Whale Watching

By Berit Anderson

Washington State’s lucrative whale-watching industry is partly responsible for a sharp decline in the Puget Sound’s Southern Resident Orca Whale population, according to a 3-part investigative series recently released by Seattle television news station Q13 Fox. Since 1998 48 members of the Southern Resident population have gone missing or died. Today it includes only 87 whales. The group, which includes J,K and L pods, was listed as an Endangered Species in 2005. In 2010 alone, six Southern Residents went missing, and are presumed dead.

Q13Fox is the first media outlet to portray the science behind what is killing the resident whales. The program includes a thorough investigation of the whale watching industry’s effects on the San Juan Islands’ famed Orca population, interviewing an array of whale watch operators, marine scientists and local activists. The report found that scientists have reached a strong consensus that the whales are starving to death, and that whale watching boats are contributing to their starvation.

Watch the full series at https://www.q13fox.com/news/kcpq-orcas-are-we-loving-them-to-de-112610,0,4058673.story.

Under the Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to harass or pursue animals that have been listed as threatened or endangered. However, Q13 Fox found that whale watch operators rely on a reporting network, that includes special whale spotting helicopters, to keep constant tabs on the whales’ location. Operators use this information to follow Orcas throughout the Puget Sound, in order to satisfy paying customers who expect an up-close view of the whales.

The investigation, conducted by reporter Dana Rebik, also took viewers undercover on whale watch expeditions in the San Juan Islands and Victoria, Canada, where operators admitted to repeatedly violating existing distance regulations intended to protect the whales from harassment. The result is a veritable Orca paparazzi, which follows J,K and L pods from May through October– prime feeding season.

Q13 cited one study which says that underwater boat noise can block 88-100% of a whale’s sonar signals at current guideline distances, rendering the whales effectively blind at the time. When combined with depleted Chinook salmon populations, scientists believe boat noise is directly responsible for the recent spike in Orca starvation and death.

In Canada, a federal court judge ruled Tuesday that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has acted unlawfully by failing to protect the habitat of threatened and endangered Orca populations from toxic contamination and noise pollution, according to a December 7th CBC News article. No such legal action has yet been taken in the U.S.

More information is available through KCPQ TV (www.kcpq.com) , the National Marine Fisheries Service website (www.nmfs.noaa.gov), or Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance (www.orcarelief.org).

Additional reporting for this story was contributed by Jennifer Lee.

Rights to reprint are hereby granted by the Strategic News Service, with attribution.