The recent Washington State Executive Order and initiation of the Southern Resident Recovery Task Force has already resulted some changes, with new guidelines for the upcoming summer season in the core summer habitat of the endangered Southern Resident orcas.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has announced a voluntary no-go zone for recreational boats and fishers on the west side of San Juan Island, which is historically a hotspot for Southern Residents foraging on salmon. The intent of the new closure is to increase the orcas’ immediate access to food by reducing human impacts to the area, including direct competition for salmon and noise from vessels that mask the orcas’ echolocation.
However, with declining returns of Chinook salmon to the Fraser River in the summer months, the Southern Residents have been looking elsewhere for food, spending less time in their historic summer habitat. 2017 was a record low year for seeing the orcas around the San Juan Islands. The benefit of this new guideline to the orcas will depend on their presence in the area. “We’re glad to see the state acting so quickly to help the Southern Residents. Not only do they need more food, but better access to it,” said Colleen Weiler, WDC’s Jessica Rekos Fellow for Orca Conservation. “I hope the Southern Residents are present more this summer so they can benefit from these new guidelines, and so we can learn if this truly helps the orcas.”
The new WDFW closure area expands a voluntary no-go zone already in place on the west side of San Juan Island. Members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) and other commercial whale watch boats already follow this voluntary rule, staying at least a quarter-mile offshore (and a half-mile offshore around Lime Kiln State Park, also known as Whale Watch Park). The new zone expands the area an extra three miles to the southern tip of San Juan Island and includes sport and recreational fishers, though commercial fishing is exempt.
The PWWA has also announced new voluntary changes to their whale watching practices this summer, including a slow zone of 7 knots within 1 km of whales, limited viewing times relative to the number of boats around whales, shutting off any additional sources of noise (sonar and depth finders) when in the vicinity of whales, and following special precautionary guidelines in Marine Protected Areas.
These measures are the first to be announced following the creation of the Washington State Task Force, which includes representatives from the fishing industry and the PWWA. A new urgency to save the Southern Resident orcas took hold last year, when the population reached a 30-year low of just 76 individuals remaining. WDC will continue to keep our supporters updated on the progress of the Task Force as additional actions are developed and announced to save this unique community of orcas.