Seven years after the Southern resident killer whale population in Puget Sound was declared endangered, US government regulators appear poised to finally enact new regulations to protect orcas from boat noise in key foraging areas. In 2009, NOAA proposed increasing the minimum buffer that boats must give orcas, from 100 yards to 200 yards, and creating a half-mile “no go” zone along the entire west side of San Juan Island, where orcas gather to feed. After extending the comment period into early 2010, finally – a year later – NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has formally completed its analysis process; now, the Department of Commerce and Office of Management and Budget must OK the plan before the new rules go into effect, hopefully before this summer’s whalewatching season.
Reducing boat noise is a key piece of the puzzle for orca health. Several recent research projects have identified impacts of boat noise, including reducing foraging time and interfering with communication. The primary direct cause of orca decline is malnutrition as salmon runs decline; for this reason, it’s crucial that orcas are not impeded by boat noise as they seek out the fewer salmon that remain.
On the Canadian side of the border, things are moving even more slowly. In December, a Canadian court ruled that the Canadian government’s approach, which uses voluntary guidelines, is not sufficient in dealing with an endangered species. But Canadian officials have appealed that ruling, and it appears that nothing will change for the foreseeable future.
“It’s another season where we’re allowing more stress to be put on these animals. You have to start asking how much more they can take? If you ask anyone, a politician anybody about the Orca they would say they’re wonderful and beautiful and magnificent. Why is it we can’t turn that into action?” asks Christine Wilhelmson of the Georgia Strait Alliance.