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Home » Archives » August 2011 » LETTERS ON GUEST EDITORIAL



[Mark Anderson responds below to a number of questions and criticisms of his recent column titled The State of the Orca” -Ed]

(The original publication of this status report has led to responses directly from the Whale Watch Operators, from their paid naturalists, and from others interested in our local Orca population. This response, written for online use, contains various links and supporting studies or authorities who would not have fit into the original, which was restricted to 500 words.

While they have long demonstrated that the Whale Watch Operators will violently attack any new changes, the target audience of this status report was those islanders who are not being paid to chase whales, and therefore have no financial interest in the question of boat contribution to orca mortality.

These are the people who turned out in the largest petition signing in county history, demanding as early as 1997 that commercial businesses stop chasing our local whales. While those financially involved can continue to try to use their own ignorance of the science behind the new federal guidelines, we think the general population of San Juan County needs and deserves to know the current status of the local whales. We also hope that the proposal at the end of this report provides a win / win solution that will both reduce whale deaths, and continue to allow whale watching profits.

To further set the proper scientific tone for this report, we will mention that it is being written at a time when there are now over fifty scientific papers on boat / whale interactions involving resident orca, by scientists from five or more countries, all of them showing negative effects. This is written in the wake of a Puget Sound Partnership gathering of all whale biologists from the northwest, now several years ago, during which we agreed as a group that our whales were dying of starvation. (For a bibliography of many of these papers, please click HERE).

This report further comes after much of the above science was re-checked by research done by the National Marine Fisheries Service ( ) whose results were delivered directly to hearing participants during a multi-year process of rulefinding, in Anacortes, Seattle and Friday Harbor. As an example, Dr. Lynne Barre, NMFS’ lead scientist in this process, specifically confirmed the ability of motorized boats to blind orca sonar at 100% levels even at the distance of 200m.

In other words, we have now crossed a line of sorts: the science is done and re-done, the federal government has concluded the first phase of its rule-making process and issued new regulations, and the time for questioning any and all science is over. For those making money on whale chasing, this is going to be a difficult situation: every peer-reviewed article on the subject shows contribution to starvation by boat interactions, and the federal government agrees, and has strengthened their rules as a result. (For those wishing a video review of this issue, we strongly recommend the recent investigative report done by Channel 13 in Seattle, at,0,4058673.story .)

Below, I have interleaved additional supporting comments and links to help those interested in learning more about the cause of Orca deaths. (For those just interested in arguing loudly because making money is involved, your position has now been fully exposed. )

The just - completed rule-making process by the National Marine Fisheries Service has left San Juan Islanders in the current situation:

1. No one can deny that our whales have been dying of starvation. (//As noted above, virtually all northwest biologists studying whales came to this agreement at a meeting in Friday Harbor Labs several years ago.//)
2. No one can deny that Chinook salmon counts matter most, and that the presence of motorized whale watch boats hastens that starvation. (//Low Chinook count alone does not correlate with increased whale deaths; but this plus boat presence correlates strongly, according to studies by Von Blaricom, Carlos Alvarez, and many other authors. Every study done on orca energetics and sonar confirms this, including those by Kriete, Bain, NMFS.) It is as though low Chinook count sets the stage for starvation, but boat presence, by increasing the need for fish per pound per day, while decreasing the whales’ hunting efficiency -blinding their sonar- creates the “perfect storm” as a path to starvation//).
3. No one can deny that these boats temporarily “blind” orca sonar, used for hunting, even at now-legal distances of up to 200m. away. (//See above//.)
4. No one can deny that the presence of these boats simultaneously increases their need for food. (//As Kriete and others have found, boat presence increases whale metabolic rate, increases swim path distance, and increases dive times. It also appears that the pods scatter widely in the presence of boats, vs. natural swim patterns; this is effective in avoiding or dividing whale watch fleets, but likely reduces effectiveness of salmon hunting//.)
5. Perhaps most politically interesting, we now have virtually all non-whalewatch orgranizations on the same side on these issues, after years of argument and waiting for science to be done. The National Marine Fisheries Service, the Whale Museum, the Friends of the San Juans, and Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance have all endorsed the new rules, and the reasons behind them; and federal, state and county government are enforcing them. (//A quick review of statements issued by these organizations upon the latest NMFS rule finding supports this concurrence of views.//)

Yes, whale watch boats are directly responsible for the death of our local whales, and it is time for islanders to take this to heart. (See all, above.)

Futhermore: motorized whale watching boats, following the orca all day every day in the season, even at legal distances, will continue to harm them.

Did this rule process help the whales at all? If I took three videos of boats on the whales from our westside office before the rules, and now, I have no doubt no one could tell the difference. So, unfortunately, no. The rules remain unenforceable, and enforcement remains so rare (6 visits last year by the state) as to be ineffective.

What Islanders Don’t Know

While the orca birth rate continues its robust rate, the current headcount could mislead islanders into thinking the whale population is regaining health. Rather, we have lost many prime-age breeding animals, creating a U-shaped population demographic and reducing the genetic health of the whole group. The whales appear to be on a deadly conveyor belt: the young survive, but, simply by getting bigger and needing more fish per day, they die of starvation.

In response to the population figures cited in a recent letter from the Operators Association:

Author Monika Wieland seems not fully aware of the population dynamics of local orca. There has always been a differential mortality rate among the orca, with a statistical assumption that half of all calves will die in their first 6-12 months. The death rate of prime-age whales, prior to the commercial whale watch industry (pre-1985 or so) is close to zero. So what we are concerned about is not absolute deaths, but a change in these death rates, from how they occur normally, and how they occur during one of our population crashes.

Normally, we lose half the calves, and almost none of the prime -age animals- which do all the breeding.

Because it is during crashes that this is most prevalent, one should not look for mortality effects during non-crash periods. We lost about 17% of our whales from 1997 - 2001.

Even so, her figures, when properly examined for a change in the rates of mortality, are alarming: losing 25 calves since 1998 is not alarming, historically; but losing 20 prime -age animals can be devastating to the population, and provides the explanation of the “hollowing out” of the demographic curve referred to here. Those adults ought to have survived.

Recently, K-pod had no breeding males; now all the pods seem to be only producing females.

This statement was in error, and Wieland properly points it out. It was the result my misunderstanding of a personal communication with Dr. Sam Wasser last week; Sam is co-author of a just-published paper with Michael Ford on inbreeding in our local whales. I have since contacted Sam, and the correction is that the gender problem is very real, but in reverse: the pods continue to produce almost all males. Wasser, referencing the same data cited by Wieland, believes that the male predominance is now so strong as to threaten future recruitment in K and L pods. Or, in his words, “there seems little question that K and L will probably go extinct pretty soon” as a result of this problem.

And if anyone needed a real red flag indicating an increasing threat level, the first paper proving inbreeding among Southern Residents has just been published. The Northern resident whales never breed inside their own pods, and ours didn’t either -until now.

There is a solution available: finish the rulemaking project by creating a No Go Zone ONLY for Motorized Whale Watch boats, along the west side of San Juan Island. Contrary to the original, this would not apply to kayakers, anglers, commercial fishermen, or private boaters. It would give the whales a very small “buffet table” where they could eat in peace, while the whale watch companies could continue making money outside this zone.

It remains our hope that, instead of further argument, the Whale Watch Operators, or perhaps federal regulators, will see the benefits to all of a properly-designed No Go zone. Whale harassment happens in a pyramid, beginning with paid spotters and a radio and Internet communications network that virtually guarantees no free time for the whales. Once the commercial fleet is on them, all day every day of the season, private boaters see the fleet and join in. Citing subsequent data on private boater numbers and behaviors conveniently misses the point: almost all private boaters would be oblivious to the whales’ presence without the commercial fleet.

By eliminating commercial operators from a west side No Go zone, the whales would be able to feed (and perhaps even rest, which they used to do daily) more effectively. The point is to reduce their starvation rate, as soon as possible. Whale watch operators could continue to make their profits per seat, and the whales might be there a few generations from now.

The idea that whale watch operators cannot bear to share the Puget Sound with the whales, in a way that actually allows the whales to avoid starving, is disturbing; we hope it is not the case.

We really think that this proposal provides an opportunity for the Whale Watch Operators’ Association to take a leadership position, look good to the public who love these whales, and contribute directly to their health and reduced mortality, even as they continue to make money.

We encourage the whole island community to support this proposal as a win / win solution that will allow their grandchildren to also enjoy the presence and benefits of our resident orca.

-Mark Anderson, Chair, Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance]

Original Letters In Response to the Guest Editorial:
Problem Is Not Whale Watching Boats

To the Editor:

Once again, Mark Anderson of Orca Relief has managed to distort and misstate facts to support his claims regarding orcas. In the past, many have ignored his postings for the untruths they are. But to paraphrase a quote, "even a mistruth spoken often enough becomes believable." Monika Weiland recently posted a very well-thought out reply that was well supported by facts. My bona fides--I have been a marine naturalist locally for 11 years, I have been a Soundwatch Volunteer for 15 years, I am a certified teacher and taught outdoor education for 2 years in the schools. I have volunteered my time with NOAA, UW, the Center for Whale Research, Cascadia Research, and The Whale Museum.

Let's analyze Anderson's most recent claim and compare it to the facts.

No one can deny that our whales have been dying of starvation. It is a fact that salmon populations have been in a decline in the last 50 years. The salmon population has been reduced by 90% due to loss of habitat, mainly through the damning of major rivers such as the Elwa. It can also be attributed to old forestation practices in which riparian zones around streams were largely unprotected until recently (which resulted in a change in the composition of spawning areas due to increased temperature of water and silting from run-off). Restoring salmon fisheries is a long process that is just now underway. But whale watch vessels have nothing to do with this fact.

No one can deny that Chinook salmon counts matter most, and that the presence of motorized whale watch boats hastens that starvation. Again, chinook are the preferred species of Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). But Anderson fails to correlate how a whale watch boat hastens starvation of SRKWs. Nowhere in any of the documentation provided to me by NOAA last month states that whale watch boats specifically are to blame for any decline in SRKWs.

No one can deny that these boats temporarily “blind" orca sonar, used for hunting, even at now-legal distances of up to 200m away. Once again, Anderson fails on this assertion completely. No study has yet been conducted since the new regulations went into effect in May, nor has any study been done that specifically correlates the presence of whale watch boats and only whale watch boats as "blinding" orca sonar.

The misinformation by Anderson continues. He states that there are no K Pod males of breeding age. Seriously? K21, K25, K26? Not of breeding age(two in their 20s, one nearly 20)? Or his further distortion that the pods are only producing females. Again, do you really not read the current statistics and matriline guides from the Center For Whale Research? The most recent birth within the last month--another male orca! In the last few years, we have had 18 calves born to the Southern Residents. 6 are female. 8 are male. 4 are still unknown. And in a limited population, wouldn't it be logical and preferred to have more females than males? One male can inseminate many females, who are the ones who bear calves.

And how laughable is it for Anderson to suggest that creating a no go zone on the west side that only eliminates whale watch operators? This again flies in the face of facts--the vast majority of all incidents recorded by Soundwatch & Straitwatch involve private vessels. Just on Monday of this week (8/1/11), nearly every incident recorded involved either a private motor vessel, or a private fishing boat. Another note--Orca Relief decided in the past to go out on the water and yell at whale watch operators from a motorized vessel using a bullhorn. While in the process of "protecting the orcas from noise", this vessel was documented in violation of the whale watch guidelines by motoring within 100 yards of whales, crossing the path of whales, all while their engines were engaged and using a very loud bullhorn.

There is already a zone on the west side that is a voluntary no go zone that the whale watch operators abide by (and one that private kayaks, anglers, and private motor boats don't always abide by). From Eagle Point to Deadman's Bay is a 1/4 mile zone, at Lime Kiln it extends out half a mile, and then 1/4 mile from Lime Kiln to Kellet Bluff.

Not too long ago, I spoke with someone affiliated with Orca Relief (whom I won't name), and I was told "if whale watch vessels abide by the rules, and educate their passengers and turn them into whale advocates, then I believe they are doing more good than harm." I've even had people who used to be Orca Relief supporters come out on my vessel (some quite begrudgingly at the start) who have told me they were surprised by the error of some of their preconceived notions about whale watch boats, and that they were glad they came out with us and saw first-hand how respectful the boats are, and the strong educational message we promoted onboard.

John Boyd
San Juan Island
Whale Watching Association Disagrees With Anderson

To the Editor:

As we continue the discussion of the best ways to help our endangered Southern Resident orcas recover, it is crucial that the public is given correct information and statements based on the best available science. With this in mind, we felt compelled to address some of the misinformation in Mark Anderson’s article on the state of the orca.

• Mr. Anderson correctly states that “Chinook salmon counts matter most”, yet he goes on to say that “whale watch boats are directly responsible for the death of our local whales”. While there is a body of peer-reviewed scientific literature demonstrating the effects of boats on killer whales, all of these studies were taken into account in NOAA’s new vessel regulations and none of them claim that vessel noise “blinds” echolocation or communication at 200 yards away as Anderson speculates. Nor do any of these studies claim that whale-watching boats are directly responsible for the deaths of our local whales. General consensus among most scientists and members of the whale community is that salmon recovery is of the utmost importance to resident killer whale survival, and that in the meantime the precautionary approach should help us govern our vessel regulations and guidelines for safe boating practices around the Southern Residents.

• Mr. Anderson states that we continue to lose many prime age breeding whales, putting young calves on a “deadly conveyor belt”. The two whales lost in the last year -J1, a 59 year-old male, and L7, a 50 year-old female, were both older whales, and at least in L7’s case, beyond reproductive years. Looking at the last 45 whales that have died since 1998, 20 of them were theoretically of reproductive age, while 25 of them were calves, juveniles, or post-reproductive females. According to Center for Whale Research data, 2/3 of female calves reach age 40 and 1/3 of male calves reach age 25. The small effective population size of the Southern Residents is a concern, but the current population bottleneck has more to do with the loss of an entire breeding class of whales during the capture era of the early 1970s than with anything else.

• Mr. Anderson states that all the pods seem to be producing only females, which is actually opposite of what is true. At her July 6 lecture at The Whale Museum, Astrid van Ginnekan of the Center for Whale Research explained that the juvenile male/female ratio of whales of known gender is 7:7 in J-Pod, 7:2 in K-Pod, and 8:2 in L-Pod. She speculated that perhaps toxins are to blame for the male-biased gender ratio in K and L Pods, since they spend time off the California coast in winter and are exposed to higher toxin levels (a theory supported by Krahn et al 2007). Additionally, Anderson makes the claim that K-Pod recently had no breeding age males. This was true for a brief period, but they have had a male of breeding age (K21) for the last decade, and now have three adult males (K21, K25, K26).

• The new study “proving inbreeding” referred to by Mr. Anderson demonstrated that male Southern Resident orcas do sire offspring within their own pod (Ford et al 2011). While intra-pod mating has not been observed in research on Northern Resident killer whales, no data existed for Southern Residents until this study. Despite mating within pods, this study found no evidence for mating within matrilines or with direct relatives in other matrilines, and the “average internal relatedness of individuals was significantly less than expected if mating were random”.

• In conclusion, Mr. Anderson argues for the creation of a no-go zone for motorized whale watch vessels on the west side of San Juan Island. Anderson’s desire to exclude only motorized commercial whale watch vessels (who account for less than 15% of guideline infractions according to 2010 Soundwatch data) and not kayakers, sport or commercial fisherman, or private boaters (the group guilty of the majority of violations, based on 2010 Soundwatch data), seems to indicate a particular bias against this group of boaters rather than a desire to truly create a quiet sanctuary for our whales.

NOAA spent more than two years crafting the new vessel regulations that went into effect this spring, and we trust they will continue to be reevaluated as new data emerges. Most commercial whale-watch companies not only follow these regulations, but the recommended Be Whale Wise guidelines that further respect the Southern Resident killer whales, and while doing so play an important role in educating visitors about all the issues our endangered orcas face. Vessel disturbances are only one of the three identified risk factors to Southern Residents and this risk factor being addressed. We think it’s time for all of us to put our energy into dealing with the two bigger issues of contaminants and prey availability.

Monika Wieland, On behalf of the San Juan Island Whale Watching Association:

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Does Not Prove What He Assertsl

To the Editor:

Mark Anderson’s arguments are weak. He concludes that the whale watching boats should be banned from the west side of San Juan Island because they are responsible for orca deaths. He does not support this.

Some of my responses to Mr. Anderson’s analysis follow:

• First, the starvation that “no one can deny”: According to some sources, it’s true that some whales may be dying of starvation, primarily because of a decline in the availability of salmon, especially chinook. Other points might be relevant:

- The orca population varies over time. In 1994, the three Southern Resident pods totaled 71 whales, in 1996, there were 97, and in 2001, 79. The population now numbers in the 80s. (NOAA)
- If we have confirmation on starvation (including numbers) I haven’t found it. Orcas die of things other than starvation (such as disease, old age, and whatever misfortune might befall the Puget Sound pods when they are absent half the year).
- Mr. Anderson acknowledges the robust state of the orca population but cites the deaths of (an unstated number of) prime-aged breeding animals as a particular concern. If this is a factor directly relevant to motorized whale watching boats, Mr. Anderson does not explain it. Neither does he explain the clear and distinct relationship between the boats and the orca population as a whole.

• Mr. Anderson says no one can deny that the chinook matter most, and the whale boats hasten the orca starvation. There are two claims here.

First, on the chinook salmon: The experts seem to agree on the importance of this food source. However:
- the decline of the Chinook could be attributable to many things =competition with other species who also like salmon, and over fishing, for example.
- NOAA Fisheries and the Puget Sound Indian tribes have approved agreements for harvesting the salmon. The contract acknowledges that fishing for Puget Sound chinook may affect the Sound’s killer whale population.
- Whale watching boats do not fish.

Second, regarding the role of the whale watching boats that no one can deny:
- NOAA’s most recent declaration of rules does discuss the possibilities and potential of problems associated with motorized vessels but also cites studies where “researchers have found that marine mammals display no reaction to vessels or concluded that there is no correlation between vessel effects and survival.”
- Mr. Anderson does not provide any causal link between the boats and the orcas dying.
- If there IS direct linkage, how does Mr. Anderson justify exempting commercial fishing and recreational boats? (I’m trying to point out the logical flaws, not encourage him to expand his targets).

• I don’t understand his fourth point about the presence of the boats increasing the orcas’ need for food.
• The “politically interesting” point on the organizations who are in accord on the NOAA rules does not seem surprising or relevant. The point Mr. Anderson is advancing has to do with a No-Go zone, which is not at issue. NOAA is not recommending it.

Finally, on the matter of enforcement of existing rules, which Mr. Anderson says is not working, if enforcement mechanisms aren’t working for current rules, why make new ones?

Overall, the main problem I have with Mark Anderson’s analysis is its failure to prove what he asserts. This is an emotional subject for all of us Everyone is in awe of the orcas. All the more reason why we should exercise good judgment rather than proposing “solutions” that have no demonstrable likelihood of solving anything, and, in the process, wreak havoc on the livelihood of small business owners.

Janice Peterson
San Juan Island
Suspend Chinook Fishing For A Spell

To the Editor:

I read with interest Mr. Anderson’s Guest Editorial about orca protection. Primarily as a result of its tone (“No one can deny . . . .), and given Mr. Anderson’s claim that “whale watch boats are directly responsible for the death of our local whales,”

I also read the Federal Register notice he cited, because I was unaware that such a connection had been established. As it happens, the notice says nothing of the sort. What it does say--for 20-some pages--is that there is a considerable body of speculation about what might be contributing to the population decline of the orcas. (The science is clearly not “done.”)

The notice concludes by imposing on all vessels (motorized or not) an approach limit of 200 yards and positioning prohibition of 400 yards (prohibiting “parking” in the path of approaching whales), neither of which seem particularly unreasonable. (What is curious is that it also provides a blanket exemption (1) government vessels; (2) commercial shipping and tugboats; and (3) commercial or treaty Indian fishing boats.) Mr. Anderson argues that these prohibitions will make little or no difference, due to lack of enforcement, and proposes a no-go zone just for whale-watching boats.

Yet, the notice states that the overwhelming majority of violations of existing limits are committed by private boats and Canadian vessels, so it’s unclear why an additional limit on U.S. whale-watching boats would much matter.

The notice does adopt the premise that motorized boats distract the whales from feeding on scarce Chinook salmon, however, and as Mr. Anderson says, the “Chinook salmon counts matter most.” This point is, indeed, indisputable. So the real question is why -given the endangered status of both orcas and Chinook- the regulatory agencies charged with protecting them allow commercial and tribal fishing that takes hundreds of thousands of pounds of Chinook each year?

Wouldn’t a suspension of Chinook fishing for several years (with compensation for the fishing fleet, if other species do not substitute) contribute significantly to survival of both orca and Chinook?

Peg Manning

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