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With Puget Sound orcas pregnant, vessels asked to give them space

An endangered female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle, Wash. Jan. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

After years of declining numbers and health problems, there are pregnancies in all three Southern Resident orca pods.

However, because of the threats facing the Southern Resident orcas, who are found just in the Pacific Northwest, the prognosis is not good for orca mothers.

Between 2008 and 2014, over two-thirds of Southern Resident pregnancies ended in miscarriage. The calves that are born have trouble surviving their first year of life. In summer 2018, J35, or Talequah, famously carried her dead baby with her for weeks.

Experts say that a lack of Chinook salmon (orcas’ main food source) in the Puget Sound, polluted waters and food, and vessel noise all are contributing to the Southern Residents’ status as endangered — and that they could go extinct if things don’t change.

Whale watchers could be key to saving Southern Resident orcas

This year, with the pandemic keeping everyone socially distant, the state is seeing an increase in pleasure boating. Unfortunately, this is creating a whole set of problems for the Southern Residents.

“We’ve seen in the sound recently, as a result of a large influx of boaters, individuals going out there to recreate, who have gone out there and had close encounters with orca whales,” said Captain Alan Myers with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Enforcement, speaking at a press conference that also included speakers from NOAA, the Pacific Whale Watch Association, and the Port of Seattle.

Myers explained that vessel noise interferes with the orcas’ use of echolocation, which helps them to find food. For the starving orca population, echolocation is critical to survival. Myers said speed rather than size is the number one determinant of whether a vessel will disrupt echolocation, with faster watercraft causing louder disruption.

As of last year, the law states that vessels must stay at least 300 yards from either side of Southern Resident killer whales, and at least 400 yards out of their path or behind the whales. WDFW has cards that boaters can hold up while on the water to gauge distance. This regulation applies to boats without motors, such as kayaks or sailboats.

Vessels must also reduce their speed to 7 knots within a half-mile of an orca.

These new laws were made after Governor Inslee convened a Southern Resident task force to help come up with strategies for saving the endangered creatures.

“People get super excited when they see whales, and they want to go up and love them to death,” Myers said. “But you can love this species to death.”

He pointed to a recent incident near Fox Island in which a group of jet skis and boaters got very close to orcas in what he called “flagrant disregard” for the rules. That incident is now being investigated and could potentially result in criminal prosecution.

“You would never expect people to run up to a pride of lions or run up to a herd of elephants and say, ‘I’m so happy to see you,'” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Fred Felleman. “This animal needs your respect.”

Right now, the state is mainly conducting education for recreational boaters. WDFW patrol vessels, San Juan County Marine Patrol, and whale watching vessels will flag down people who get too close to orcas and guide them to leave a large oval around the whales.

“People who are trying to do the right thing, we’re going to give a lot of leeway to,” Myers said.

However, enforcement can and will be used for people continuing to disobey the law after warnings. This can result in hefty fines and even criminal prosecution.

For more information about how you can help keep the whales safe on the water and follow state law, visit Be Whale Wise.

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