Buoy in Puget Sound to measure impact of underwater noise on orcas

Feb 4, 2022, 2:29 PM
buoy, Puget Sound...
Marine mammal scientists deploy a buoy into Puget Sound that will measure the underwater noise from commercial and recreational vessels. (Photo courtesy of King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks)
(Photo courtesy of King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks)

The King County’s research vessel has deployed a buoy into Puget Sound to measure the underwater noise from commercial and recreational vessels, a risk to Southern Resident orcas.

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The study “will help increase the frequency and quality of reports of orca sightings provided to pilots of large vessels so they can voluntarily slow down or change course.” By doing so, the vessels would reduce the amount of underwater noise and prevent collisions.

SMRU Consulting — which conducts marine mammal research worldwide — is running the pro bono study. The name of the research vessel from which the buoy was deployed is the “SoundGuardian.”

The buoy was placed in winter as that’s the time when orcas are regularly found in Puget Sound to search for Chinook and Chum salmon. Orcas rely on their use of sound to hunt, communication, navigate, and avoid dangers — which is why noise from vessels can be so damaging.

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“Our state-of-the-art research vessel is a valuable asset helping some of the world’s leading mariner biologists work to protect southern resident orcas,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine in a written release. “The scientific research they produce will contribute to our collective mission to not only track the health of Puget Sound, but also ensure the survival of its marine life.”

As for other work to help local marine mammals, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unveiled new “action plans” in April 2021 to ensure the recovery of five endangered species, including Southern Resident orcas.

At last observation, reported in mid-January, three orcas were in late-stage pregnancy — the final six months of an 18-month gestation period. But while it gives researchers hope that three are pregnant, there is no guarantee of a healthy calf.

In the Legislature, salmon recovery — and by extension, orca recovery — is expected to be a major theme. Gov. Inslee proposed more than $180 million for salmon recovery in his budget, in the hopes of building back up the orcas’ food supply. This is showing up in several bills, including those aimed at salmon habitat recovery or commercial fishing regulation.

There is also a program called “Quiet Sound,” that Washington State Ferries says aims to reduce effects of noise from vessels on orcas. According to WSF — which serves on the Leadership Committee of Quiet Sound — the program “recently launched its website, following more than two years of engagement and planning.”

KIRO Newsradio’s Nicole Jennings contributed to this report.

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Buoy in Puget Sound to measure impact of underwater noise on orcas