12/23/2010: "READERS RESPOND TO ORCA STORY"
This is a response to Berit Anderson's article "Orcas: Are We Loving Them to Death?"
I am not surprised by this recent article published under the auspices of "news". I find it interesting that Ms. Anderson is purporting to present an expert opinion and has no background in the subject she is expounding upon--other than the fact her father is the founder of Orca Relief. For years, I have ignored the postings of Orca Relief, but enough is enough. Ms. Anderson's December posting is not as accurate as the she would have you believe.
My credentials and affiliations? I am a certified teacher in physical education and biology. I have taught environmental educations for years. I have worked as a volunteer for The Whale Museum's Soundwatch program for 14 years. I am a founding member of the Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists. I am a working naturalist for the last 6 years with Western Prince. I am an unofficial volunteer docent out on the West Side Preserve. I have volunteered with the Center for Whale Research, with researchers from NOAA, and from the University of Washington.
As Jeanne Hyde and Ivan Reiff have so readily pointed out, this article is full of mis-information and distortions.
If you took Ms. Anderson's writing at face value, you would infer that Q13 conducted a scientifically-based investigation into whale mortality and that the reporter and all scientists have concluded the presence of whale watching vessels was directly causing orca mortality. But let's take a closer look at this supposition. J-Pod is usually seen in local waters far more often than K Pod or L Pod. Since the Center for Whale Research has been maintaining their records, J Pod is now at its' highest population since the study began in the mid 1970s. So, Orca Relief's assertion that orca mortality and whale watch operator presence is nullified not by emotion, but by fact. L Pod is here for the lowest amount of time, and is having the largest number of its' members disappearing.
The four major factors that are affecting Southern Resident Killer Whale populations are:
1. Salmon salmon salmon. Salmon populations in the last 50 years have decreased by up to 90%. This is due to: the loss of critical spawning habitat, damming of major spawning rivers, silting of smaller tributaries during clear-cutting. Whale watch boats have no impact here. This one factor is the NUMBER ONE issue for the continued survival of Southern Residents
2. Pollution concerns. Sadly, our SRKW population is proving to be one of the most polluted species. PCBs that have been outlawed for more than 30 years are still present in our ecosystem. PCBs have the effect of compromising immune systems in orcas as well as act as an estrogen mimic that can disrupt proper development of young whales. PBDEs began showing up in recent years in young orcas at an alarming rate. The State of Washington quickly acted to outlaw these chemicals. But this is a global society, and other places aren't so strict and currents can bring pollutants in for many miles. In a recent study, researchers found that J Pod had the highest levels of PCBs, and L Pod much lower. Yet L Pod had huge levels of DDT, which can be carried in currents that flow off the coast of California. The list of toxins found in whales goes on and on. Again, whale watch vessels aren't a contributing factor.
3. Orca Captures of the '60s and '70s. We need to remember that during this time period, we lost 49 whales to the captures for the various marine parks in the world. FORTY NINE! Most of these whales were young females. And the effects are still being felt to this day. All those whales removed from our local waters, no longer a part of the breeding population. We can only extrapolate how many whales were never born because of their removal from local waters. It could easily amount to hundreds of whales.
4. Vessel effects. In all the research (non-Orca Relief based), vessel effects are identified, but none of them specifically identify whale watch vessels as a contributing factor. In reviewing data going back since the mid 1990s, whale watch vessels in the presence of Southern Residents are a small portion of the total number of boats on the water. And whale watch vessels account for a smaller number of incidents than Orca Relief would have you believe (number one offender would be private vessels by a large margin). And most studies of vessel effects were not solely focused on whale watch operators. They also included private vessels, and shipping traffic. And anyone who has listened to either of the hydrophone arrays on the west side of the island can attest to the intensity of sound generated by a freighter miles from whales. So the implication that research was focused solely on whale watch vessels is once again disingenuous.
Let's look at Ms. Anderson's next statement that the whale watch operators keep constant observation of whales including the use of spotting helicopters. Where is the author getting her information??? Since I have been on this island, either as a SSAMN Marine Naturalist, Soundwatch volunteer, or casual observer, I have witnessed helicopters in close vicinity of whales a total of 6 times in 14 years. A couple of summers ago, the Center for Whale Research was using a helicopter for a permitted research project. One time I witnessed a helicopter hovering so low over whales you could see prop wash. The culprit--the United States Navy. Two private helicopters were observed over whales. The last time I saw a helicopter near whales---Homeland Security. So again, the credibility of the author is called into question.
One local authority who carries a lot of credibility about Southern Residents is the head of the Center for Whale Research, Ken Balcomb. If you ask Ken what he feels is the biggest threat to orcas, it'll come down to one thing---salmon.
As for the undercover report by Q13, I find it interesting that Ms. Anderson conveniently overlooks the fact that the undercover agent went out with a local operator (Ivan Reiff of Western Prince), and the reporter not only mentioned the fact that they got nowhere near whales, but that the boat presented a very strong environmental message.
Finally, I will conclude with 3 orca-related anecdotes. This summer, Orca Relief participated in an exercise to protest whale watching by having some of its' members go out in a power vessel and yell at whale watch vessels via a bullhorn. During this outing, the Orca Relief boat crossed the path of whales (the incident was written up). The use of the bullhorn was especially short-sighted as they were yelling into it about noise pollution. While motoring. In the path of whales. Secondly, in speaking with a researcher who has been affiliated with Orca Relief for many years, this person told me directly "if whale watch operators follow the rules, and can turn their passengers into advocates of the whales through education, then I think they are doing more good than harm." Lastly, a couple of years ago, I had a family come out on the boat with us, one of which was a "local" who looked very unhappy to be aboard the boat. But as the trip progressed, this local began warming up to me, and at the end of the trip, admitted she had been aboard reluctantly as she was a supporter of Orca Relief, but came out with her guests. She told me point-blank that the trip was nothing like she had been led to believe, and that she felt that we were doing more good than harm by educating our passengers, being respectful of the whales, and by emphasizing the education.
The keys for continued success and survival of orcas is simple: Salmon are a keystone species to the Pacific Northwest. Protect the salmon, and you protect the rest. Keep their environment as free of pollutants as possible. Not all whale watch operators are the same. We need to recognize that there are some companies who are doing things the right way. Q13 showed an example of such a company, as well as one who was not doing things the right way. But many local operators truly care about the orcas, are active in local research, and are doing their job of educating the public while operating within the confines of local, state, and Federal regulations.
SSAMN Marine Naturalist, Western Prince
Friday Harbor, WA
To the Editor:
This is a response to Berit Anderson's article "Orcas: Are We Loving Them to Death?"
Misleading statements in any article are cause for concern, but when an article leaves out pertinent information in the very beginning it discredits the entire rest of the article. And that is what was done in this article. By leaving out an important piece of the population count of the SRKW community, Ms. Anderson caused it to look as if there had been many more whales in the community in 1998 than there actually were.
In the first paragraph Ms. Anderson's article says: "Since 1998 48 members of the Southern Resident population have gone missing or died." Okay, so that is correct or close to it.
My numbers say 47 whales. Off by one, but that's not the issue here.
The next statement, in bold type, states: "Today it includes only 87 whales."
The word 'only' is the operative word here. It's this statement that leads a person to believe that there had been 135 whales (48 + 87) and that is just wrong.
Ms. Anderson left out the fact that 47 whales have been born into the Southern Resident Community since the beginning of 1998.
Here's the breakdown:
Thirteen years ago, in the beginning of 1998, there were 87 living whales in the Southern Resident Community.
Over the last thirteen years, 47 have gone missing and presumed to have died.
Over the last thirteen years, 47 babies have been born.
And yes, today there are 87 whales.
Had Ms. Anderson included all the information her story would have lost some of the 'emotional punch' that she may have been seeking.
After reading this short beginning it was clear the rest of the article would be full of spin, and it was. Read another person's Letter to the Editor, "12/23/2010 Reader Responds to Orca Story" to get through the spin that was in Ms. Anderson's story.
San Juan Island Resident
To the Editor:
The recent Island Guardian article written by Berit Anderson, titled “Orcas: Are We Loving Them To Death?” is a very emotional story and one that can be quite compelling, if it is the only narrative you hear.
Unfortunately, it is also extremely misleading. In the article the journalist basically regurgitates a completely biased and misleading story from Fox News. There was quite obviously an agenda behind the story, one that is produced by Orca Relief.
The survival outlook for the Southern Resident Killer Whale community is bad enough. Why mislead? Making commercial whale watchers a scapegoat is not going to help the whales. We need to work together and we need to educate the general public (not just the island) about ways that each and every one of us can help.
As a whale watcher I personally work very hard in what I do to be a positive force for conservation and it is extremely disheartening when people like Berit Anderson portray me as primarily responsible for whale deaths.
To put my statements in context lets look at the article in a little more detail.
In the story Anderson states:
“Since 1998 48 members of the Southern Resident population have gone missing or died.” “Today it includes only 87 whales.“
She doesn’t mention the fact that in 1998 there were 87 whales in the population as well, and that 47 new babies were born since then (her whale death numbers are off slightly). This is not exactly good news, but it certainly is not as bad as she portrays it. Also, if you dig a little deeper you will find that J-Pod (the pod that spends the most time being observed by whale watching boats) has increased from 22 members in 1998 to 27 members in December 2010. While, L-Pod (the pod that spends the least time in the area) has declined from 48 members to 42 (Center for Whale Research data). If we were using Orca Relief’s methodology one could say that the more whales are around boats the better they will do. But that would be incredibly short sighted, wouldn’t it.
Next Anderson states:
“However, Q13 Fox found that whale watch operators rely on a reporting network, that includes special whale spotting helicopters, to keep constant tabs on the whales’ location.”
Anderson has quite the imagination. Where did she get the idea that helicopters are used? I can only imagine that she added that to make whale watchers sound menacing. If whale watchers are really as evil as she claims why is she fabricating information?
Then Anderson goes on to reference Fox News again:
“The investigation, conducted by reporter Dana Rebik, also took viewers undercover on whale watch expeditions in the San Juan Islands and Victoria, Canada, where operators admitted to repeatedly violating existing distance regulations intended to protect the whales from harassment.”
Again, an extremely misleading statement. My boat was the only boat in the San Juan Islands that Dana Rebik went undercover on. On that trip she found that we operated according to guidelines, slowing down to less than 7 knots within 400 yards (we actually start slowing at ½ mile) and maintaining a 100 yard buffer from the whales (which usually translates into about 150 - 200 yards viewing distance). The majority of commercial whale watchers operate in such a manner. The majority of operators also go out of their way to make sure that customers get an educational experience, one that encourages conservation.
But, of course, talking about the thousands of people who are exposed to this incredible ecosystem in an educational way doesn’t fit with Orca Relief’s agenda. For the most part, our passengers don’t have the fortune of living on a beautiful island surrounded by a still fairly intact ecosystem. They are, however, the very people we need to engage if we are going to bring about any real change in the way our society views and interacts with our environment.
Unfortunately, Dana Rebik also went out with a captain in Victoria who was less than professional. I assure you that he was representative of a very small portion of the commercial captains on the water. The only good news is that he was fired immediately after the story aired.
Next Anderson says:
“Q13 cited one study which says that underwater boat noise can block 88-100% of a whale's sonar signals at current guideline distances, rendering the whales effectively blind at the time.“
The actual statement made in the Fox News story was:
“In a 2008 study by Marla Holt, she found because of their incredibly sensitive hearing, engine noise can block between 88-100% of a whale's sonar signals. “
As you can see there is no reference to whale watching guidelines. In fact, this statement appears to be made in relation to the prior statement in the story:
"They send sound out into the environment. It bounces off objects and brings back information. Whales use this echolocation to find food," says Barre. “Fast moving boats at 100 meters from the whales can significantly impair the whales’ ability to find salmon."
It is important to note that whale watching guidelines require a speed of less than 7 knots within 400 yards. Most commercial whale watchers slow down well outside of 400 yards. Vessels operating at speed at 100 meters is a recreational boat issue. According to Soundwatch data, 90% of guideline infractions are made by recreational boaters. You will not find a single commercial whale watcher who would intentionally operate their vessel at speed at 100 meters from a whale.
Finally, Anderson goes on to claim:
“When combined with depleted Chinook salmon populations, scientists believe boat noise is directly responsible for the recent spike in Orca starvation and death.
Yet, except for Orca Relief backed research, most research repeatedly points to a strong correlation between salmon availability and whale mortality, not whale watching activity. Such as the most recent findings from the Center for Conservation Biology:
“Causes of Decline among Southern Resident Killer Whales - Center For Conservation Biology
Multiple Chinook salmon populations crashed on the west coast this past season in 2008, before the SRKW experienced the 8% population decline (Center for Whale Research unpubl. data). Boat traffic actually decreased during this season, most likely due to high gas prices and a recessing economy that discouraged tourism. These patterns and our preliminary data suggest that declining prey abundance may explain the high mortality in 2008, although interactions with vessel traffic must still be explored in greater detail. For now, it seems clear that mitigation efforts to increase number and quality of available prey to Southern resident killer whales will be an important first step towards assuring SRKW recovery.”
Which brings me to my point. Blaming whale watchers for the demise of the Southern Resident Killer Whale community is the easy way out. We are highly visible and not very welcome in the million dollar views from our beautiful shorelines. While I believe that whale watching should be regulated (preferably with permits that could be pulled for bad behavior), commercial whale watchers are not the primary issue. If we don’t work together to find a way to restore the salmon runs throughout the Pacific Northwest these whales will surely die off whether anyone is watching them or not.
I urge you to take a more complete look at the issue. For example, there is some good NON-biased information on the following websites:
Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours