(CN) – The National Marine Fisheries Service is again considering a whale protection zone for endangered orcas in Puget Sound because boat noise is causing them to starve. The population of Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) lost seven individuals in 2016, the agency said, bringing the total down to just 78, in the wild.
These orcas’ main prey is Chinook salmon, which are depleted, and therefore harder to find. The agency’s studies have shown that the whales forage less in the presence of motorized boats, such as the whale watching charter boats that seek out the whales and then stay near them when found. The noise from the boats is also believed to interfere with the whales’ ability to use echolocation to find their prey.
The agency has designated these orcas to be one of eight national marine species singled out as “Species in the Spotlight,” because they are at high risk of extinction. The designation comes with a special action plan for their recovery.
“We’re looking at every option and every opportunity to address the threats to these whales,” Barry Thom, Administrator of NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, said. “We’re all very concerned about the losses of the last year and we’re determined to work with our partners to pursue the action plan and turn that around.”
The SRKWs were declared an endangered species in 2005. In 2009, the agency proposed a previous whale protection zone, but a negative public response caused the agency to pull key components of the regulation when it was enacted in 2011. Last November, a coalition of conservation organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance and SeaWolf, petitioned the agency to enact regulations for an effective protective zone. The agency’s Jan. 13 action acknowledges receipt of the petition and calls for public comments for the formulation of a proposal.
“To be effective, regulations require a degree of public acceptance, and we did not see sufficient support for a protected area in 2011,” Lynne Barre, NOAA Fisheries recovery coordinator for the SRKWs, said. “The petition presents an opportunity to revisit that idea and get input from the public on this type of protection for the whales.”
Though called killer whales, orcas are actually members of the dolphin family. They are considered to be the ocean’s top, or apex, predator, and as such they play a key role in marine ecosystems. Families, or pods, stay together for life, and they have long lifespans. One of the 2016 deaths was a matriarch known as Granny, believed to be 105 years old. Lolita, held captive in the Miami Seaquarium amusement park since 1970, is also a member of the SRKWs. Her mother, estimated to be 85 years old, is still alive in the wild as part of the “L” pod, one of the three pods comprising the SRKW population. Two of the pods, “J” and “L,” have had recent births, but “K” pod has not had a birth since 2011. One calf born in January 2016 to “J” pod did not survive his first month.
“I have a sinking feeling because so many orcas died this past year because they’re so seriously close to extinction. We need to use everything possible to safeguard the last 78 whales, and a whale protection zone will protect them from noise and other disturbances,” Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said.
The November 2016 petition seeks a 10-square-mile whale protection zone near San Juan Island, along with licensing of and limiting the number of whale watching vessels, along with Automatic Identification Systems for whale watching vessels and fishing fleets to aid in compliance.
“The Whale Protection Zone is a substantial first step in preserving the Southern Resident Killer Whale population,” Scott West, Orca Relief’s Executive Director, said. “These endangered orca whales are constantly harassed and assaulted from boating noise and other recreational activity, which impact their ability to hunt and peacefully exist in a climate where they already suffer from toxic pollution, climate change, and diminishing food supply. The news today gives us hope that the SRKW can recover from the edge of extinction.”
Comments on the petitioned whale protection zone are due April 13.