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Whale watchers could be key to saving Southern Resident orcas

Peter Hanke, the second-generation owner of Puget Sound Express whale watching company, stands in front of his boat, the Saratoga, in Edmonds. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)

This is the second part of a two-part feature on Southern Resident orca recovery. To read part one, click here

Although a moratorium on whale watching the Southern Resident orca whales is listed in Governor Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force’s final report, as well as  House Bill 1580 and Senate Bill 5577, as vital to reducing the threat of vessel noise to the Southern Residents, whale watch operators maintain that their work actually contributes to the well-being of the endangered whales.

Whale watching as patrol vessels

Far from being a threat to the Southern Residents, Puget Sound Express owner and Port of Port Townsend Commissioner Peter Hanke argued that the whale watch tour boats play a pivotal role in their recovery that is twofold. The first part of this role is to act as a patrol for other whale watch operators, commercial vessels, and pleasure craft.

“We’re talking to each other and we’re really aware through all the resources we have of where whales are at — what whales and where they’re at,” Hanke said. “The main concern we have with the moratorium is, if no one’s watching the orcas, no one is going to be able to protect them from other boats that aren’t aware that they’re there.”

Yachts and sport fishing boats are not looking for fins, he said. Whale watching vessels frequently alert recreational and fishing boats of where whales are, and advise them to slow down and move around the creatures.

“Our concern, and it’s a serious concern, is, if the state says, ‘Okay, we’re going to have this moratorium on Southern Residents, no one can be around them,’ no one will be around them — except the boats that are driving over the top of them,” Hanke said.

The Royal Canadian Navy has conducted demolition tests underwater at Race Rocks, just southwest of Victoria. Twice last summer, Canadian whale watch operators called the chief of naval operations in B.C. and alerted him that Southern Residents were about to swim right through the explosion testing site. The tests were brought to a halt until the whales had safely passed through the area.

This is just one example of the kind of dangers that Hanke worries orcas could face if the whale watching boats are not there to help patrol them.

“That’s the big caution we’re throwing at the Legislature right now — be careful you don’t do more damage than you’re aware of,” Hanke said.

As far as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife taking over the patrol role, Hanke fears that the department is already stretched thin in terms of resources, as it “has a much bigger mission than just protecting Southern Resident orcas.”

WDFW Region 4 Director and task force member Amy Windrope pointed out that Inslee’s budget contains increased funds allocated to WDFW for this purpose. She also pointed to the presence of volunteer patrol vessels on the water such as Soundwatch, run by Friday Harbor’s Whale Museum.

“In the governor’s budget, there is an increase to our enforcement fleet so that we can focus on the orcas,” Windrope said. “There’s also increased money from the federal government to make sure that we are protecting the orcas. It’s a priority for us.”

Educational moments

Both the whale watch industry and the environmentalists say that whale watchers fulfill a conservation goal by educating every single customer who comes aboard about the Southern Residents’ plight.

“From the moment we leave the dock … we’re giving them an audio-visual presentation of what’s going on in the whale world,” Hanke said.

Education, Hanke believes, is the second part of the major role that whale watch operators play in orca recovery, as education is one of the most fundamental tools for bringing about political policy changes.

“The amount of information we’re putting out to the public in terms of what the conservation efforts are, and what the public can do to further bolster that, is tremendous,” he said. “And it’s hundreds of thousands of people that this industry is hauling.”

And the people who go out on whale watch tours will be willing to learn, since they tend to be a “constituency that is very ecological and environmentally-oriented,” said marine biologist Ken Balcomb, founder of San Juan Island’s Center for Whale Research and a task force member.

Mindy Roberts, People for Puget Sound program director at ecological nonprofit Washington Environmental Council and a member of the task force agreed that when whale watching boats can explain to tourists why they won’t stop to watch Southern Residents, it creates an important educational moment.

“They can tell their clients why they aren’t going to stop and whale watch on those particular animals … It still gives an opportunity for the whale watch industry to talk about the Southern Residents and how important they are to our entire region,” she said.

Impacts on small businesses

Besides the impact of a moratorium on the Southern Residents themselves, Hanke dreads the effect that the rumors spreading about the task force’s recommendations will have, and are already having, on the family-run whale watching businesses.

“We’re all seeing effects of people calling from all over the world and the States [saying], ‘Is Washington still open for whale watching?'” he said, adding, “This effect is real, it’s immediate, and it’s too bad, because it could have been a lot more productive and rolled out in a much more positive light, and the whales still would have benefited from conservation.”

The whale watching industry is a great boon to the economies of rural areas like Friday Harbor, Port Townsend, Anacortes, La Conner, Bellingham, and Port Angeles, Hanke said. Southern Resident orcas draw tourists from around the world; travel websites list whale watching next to the Space Needle and Pike Place Market as top activities when visiting Washington.

An even bigger factor is what is known as the “guest effect”– when Washington residents either take visiting friends and relatives out whale watching as a fun activity, or send their visiting kin out on a whale watching tour boat to get rid of them for a few hours.

It is the guest effect that Hanke sees feeling the greatest impact, as Washingtonians will no doubt hear of the moratorium, but may not realize that it’s only a moratorium on Southern Residents.

“It’s really hard to create that distinction … educating the public as to what that distinction is is really tough,” he said.

Puget Sound Express, which employs a total of 35 people in its tours out of Port Townsend and Edmonds, has already felt the impact. The business was looking at expanding its number of tours this year, which would mean adding six more positions. That plan has now been abandoned.

The whale watch operation is a three-generation business, started by Hanke and his father in the 1980s; now Hanke’s adult son and daughter have joined the ranks.

“This truly is a family-run operation, and we’re all optimistic that we’ll continue to do whale watching,” he said. “It’s just, how much can you do?”

The important takeaway, Hanke said, is that there are still plenty of whales other than the Southern Residents to be watched. Hanke thanks Governor Inslee for assuring the state that “Washington is open for whale watching” in his budget speech, and hopes that over the next few months, the governor and others will continue to spread this message to Pacific Northwesterners and the world, undoing the PR damage of the moratorium rumors.

“We are so fortunate in Puget Sound, in the Salish Sea, that we have Transient orcas — their numbers are expanding today, which is fabulous,” Roberts said. “We also have minke whales, grey whales, there are humpbacks as well. There are lots of opportunities to go whale watching in our region.”

What are the solutions?

What, then, are the solutions to long-term Southern Resident recovery and survival?

Hanke believes that the Southern Resident orcas’ health directly correlates with the amount of salmon in British Columbia’s Fraser River, how big they are, and how free of pollution they remain. The Fraser River flows 850 miles from its source in the Canadian Rockies to Vancouver, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean amidst the factories and tankers of an industrial center.

When orcas eat Chinook from polluted waters, toxins build up in the their blubber. As they go without food, their bodies burn that fat, infesting their bodies with toxins that can cause liver problems, cancer, developmental deformities, and other serious health issues.

“If you could clean the Fraser River up faster than anything else, that would be the most immediate effect on the Southern Residents,” Hanke said.

In fact, if Hanke could say anything to Gov. Inslee, it would be, “Let’s really bring British Columbia into the conversation.”

Balcomb doesn’t see toxins alone as the problem, since the toxins are also in the bodies of the salmon eaten by the Transient orcas, and their numbers aren’t decreasing like those of the Southern Residents.

“If you provide enough food supply, they don’t have to reach into the blubber layers and metabolize toxic fat,” he said. “That’s why we’re advocating an increase in food supply available to the whales.”

For Balcomb, then, the biggest key to orca recovery is regulating the fisheries.

“Give the whales priority access to the fish that are being put out on quota to the various users for harvest … We probably ought to have a treaty that gives the whales the first priority, and the people the second and third priority,” Balcomb said.

Hanke pointed out that fishing nets from the hake fishery along the West Coast are allowed to catch 11,000 Chinook by accident — what is known as bycatch — per year in their drag nets. That means 11,000 Chinook “caught at their most prime” that are not migrating to rivers and spawning future salmon.

“I think what was the most disappointing thing with the task force this year was that they went after the whale watching boats, but they really should have gone after the fishing boats to begin with … there was a lot of, ‘Hey, we’re going to look this way,'” he said.

Reducing bycatch is included as one of the task force’s recommendations, but WDFW maintains the stance that fisheries have little impact on Chinook supply. It stated in a recent white paper:

“It has been determined that a moratorium on fishing in these areas would likely not result in meaningful increases in prey available to [Southern Residents] … the amount of Chinook present in Puget Sound is 9 to 22 times the amount needed to meet the annual dietary needs and, given the relatively low numbers that are harvested in Puget Sound fisheries, a moratorium would have little benefit to SRKWs.”

Therefore, Windrope said, the Chinook are already in the sound — what the Southern Residents need help with is locating them and catching them.

“I think the number-one [priority] is the vessel noise, because it immediately makes available food; I think the next thing is increased hatcheries, because that increases the food,” Windrope said. “And then after that, it’s habitat improvements.”

Hanke agreed that “hatcheries [are] a good idea” and that “looking at all our shoreline master plans and what we’re doing on our shorelines is excellent.”

Balcomb wants to look at removing the Snake River dams so that more Chinook are able to swim through the dams and spawn. Discussing the breaching or removal of the dams was one of the task force’s recommendations.

“When we talk about taking down dams in the Snake River to provide a million more salmon, that is meaningful,” Balcomb said. “Trying to clean up a river in Puget Sound to make it habitable for 4,000 or 5,000 salmon, that’s great locally, but it’s not meaningful in terms of survival of the whales.”

Conclusions

While the people at the heart of the debate may not always agree on what the best steps moving forward are, they do acknowledge one another’s respect and appreciation for the Southern Residents — be it scientist, government employee, or whale watch operator.

“The people involved in the whale watching industry are some of the people who admire and love the orcas even the most,” Inslee acknowledged in his budget speech. “And they have been very helpful for us in evaluating the orcas’ survival.”

Roberts noted that the whale watching tour companies wouldn’t be in the business if they didn’t care about the orcas, and have shown a willingness to help as part of the task force.

“I have been fortunate to work with people from the [Pacific] Whale Watch Association, and it’s clear from my engagement with them, we know that they love these animals, and their business absolutely depends on them,” she said. “I think they’ve got an opportunity to demonstrate some phenomenal leadership, and yes, we’re asking something of them.”

The clock is ticking for the Southern Residents — and everyone concurs that action must be taken soon.

“We’re in a crisis situation, we absolutely need to act quickly … We’re deeply invested in orca recovery, we’ve been working on elements of this for quite some time,” Roberts said. “And for us, we see a generational obligation right now to act.”

Indeed, to lose the Southern Residents would be to lose a piece of our identity as the Puget Sound, Windrope said.

“They are our local orcas … they’re the species of our Puget Sound, them and the salmon,” she said. “And that relationship between the salmon and the orca is so complex and important that when we recover the orcas, we will know that we will also have recovered the salmon. And in my mind, that is the basis of what it means to be a Pacific Northwesterner.”

For Hanke, a lifelong Puget Sounder, the loss of each orca is a personal heartache.

“When you grow up with the orcas, you get to know them as really close friends,” Hanke said. “And to lose them is just like losing a pet, or a relative.”

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