With numerous whales in poor body condition and several pregnancies reported, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Thursday issued an emergency order requiring commercial whale-watching vessels to keep at least one-half nautical mile away from endangered Southern Resident killer whales this summer, and all boaters are urged to Be Whale Wise and do the same.
Using measurements from drone photographs, researchers from SR3 Sealife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research identified several pregnancies among the Southern Resident killer whale population and a dozen members in poor condition between September 2021 and April 2022.
“While we have reason to remain hopeful with the reports of recent pregnancies, the reality is that there are several Southern Residents that aren’t doing well and we’re very concerned about the population at large,” said WDFW Director Kelly Susewind. “We’re taking action today to address these immediate concerns, and we continue working with our partner organizations to implement the Governor’s Task Force recommendations for the long-term health of these orcas.”
According to SR3’s measurements from aerial images, three K-pod whales (K12, K20, and K27) were in the last nine months of pregnancy, and likely within the last six months (from a typical full term of 17-18 months), as of September 2021.
Based on recent online videos showing a calf with K pod, it is likely that at least one of these pregnancies was successful. Another whale, L72, was determined to be in the last six months of pregnancy as of January 2021, and we expect this whale is still in late-stage pregnancy. These females had body widths consistent with those of females who subsequently gave birth in the past.
Twelve J- and L-pod members were in poor condition based on measurements of the fatness behind the skull, which puts them at a two-to-three-times higher risk of mortality. Concerningly, one of the dozen whales in poor condition (L83) also appeared to be pregnant when last measured in January 2022.
In addition to the pregnancies and orcas in poor body condition, SR3’s results identified two young whales (J53 and L123) that were exhibiting slower-than-expected growth, which is measured by length. One of these (J53) is also exhibiting lower-than-average body condition.
“Our non-invasive photogrammetry research can identify whales in poor health that have a higher risk of death in the subsequent months, and our aim is to identify these vulnerable whales before their condition becomes terminal,” said Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director with SR3. “Similarly, we can identify females in the latter stages of pregnancy, which is an important but fragile time for successful reproduction.”
Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, Southern Resident killer whales face three main threats: a lack of food, contaminants in their food, and vessel noise and disturbance as they forage and communicate using echolocation. Center for Whale Research’s December 2021 census recorded the Southern Resident population at just 73 individuals, although researchers are hopeful that the birth of J59 in early 2022, reports of a birth in K pod this May, and the pregnancies identified in SR3’s analysis will help the population number grow.
Based on the aerial photography measurements from SR3, WDFW on Thursday adopted an emergency rule that designates the whales in poor body condition and the whale likely to still be in the latter stages of pregnancy as “vulnerable.” To see a full list of whales designated as vulnerable, view the emergency rule.
This designation offers the whales extra space and further protection as part of the Department’s Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program, by prohibiting motorized commercial whale watching operators from approaching a half-nautical mile bubble around the vulnerable whales and their traveling companions.
The new restrictions go into effect ahead of the July-September season when commercial viewing of Southern Resident orcas is otherwise permitted daily during certain hours. Licensed operators are not permitted to approach Southern Residents within a half-nautical mile outside of this viewing season, and thus, the whale-watching fleet has not been viewing Southern Residents at closer than one-half nautical mile for the past nine months.
“Whale-watching operators are often the first to spot and identify Southern Residents when they’re present in the Salish Sea,” said Erin Gless, executive director with the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “Our operators will be working closely with WDFW officers to communicate Southern Resident sightings whenever they’re spotted, while still giving them plenty of space.”
The new designation doesn’t affect commercial whale watching of other, healthier populations such as Bigg’s killer whales, humpback whales, gray whales, or any other whale species currently in the area, which comprise most whale-watching opportunities in Washington. These tours are available year-round.
All boaters are strongly encouraged to follow these increased restrictions, and to treat any killer whales as endangered Southern Resident killer whales, especially when unsure if one of the vulnerable whales is nearby.
Boaters’ adherence to Be Whale Wise guidance is especially important due to the established connection between boats and the whales’ foraging success, the high rate of failed pregnancies among Southern Residents in recent years, and the small number of breeding females in the population.
A key finding from research that NOAA Fisheries published in 2021 indicated the effects of vessel noise are especially prominent for females, which often cease foraging when boats approach within 400 yards. Research shows this tendency to stop foraging when boats are nearby may be most concerning for pregnant or nursing mothers that need to find more food to support calves. Typically, food consumption increases by 25 percent in the final month of gestation.
Washington law requires vessels to stay at least 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales and at least 400 yards out of the path in front of and behind the whales. Vessels must also reduce their speed to seven knots within one-half nautical mile of Southern Residents.
“Each and every boater willing to stay farther away from orcas is critical, particularly when we have so many orcas doing poorly,” said Julie Watson, Ph.D., WDFW killer whale policy lead. “We urge everyone to Be Whale Wise and give orcas as much space as possible — especially if you are unsure whether one of these vulnerable individuals may be present — to allow this endangered population a chance to recover.”
Boaters are encouraged to watch for the Whale Warning Flag, an optional tool from the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, that lets others know that there might be whales nearby. If boaters see the flag, they should slow down and continue to follow Be Whale Wise regulations.
–CBB, Jan. 15, 2021, NEW NOAA STUDY SHOWS FEMALE PUGET SOUND KILLER WHALES CEASE FEEDING WHEN VESSELS WITHIN 400 YARDS https://cbbulletin.com/new-noaa-study-shows-female-puget-sound-killer-whales-cease-feeding-when-vessels-within-400-yards/
— CBB, Dec. 30, 2020, WASHINGTON STATE APPROVES NEW RULES FOR COMMERCIAL VIEWING OF KILLER WHALES; LESS TIME UP CLOSE https://www.www.www.cbbulletin.com/washington-state-approves-new-rules-for-commercial-viewing-of-killer-whales-less-time-up-close/
— CBB, Dec. 11, 2020, GUEST COLUMN: PACIFIC KILLER WHALES ARE DYING — NEW RESEARCH SHOWS WHY https://www.www.www.cbbulletin.com/guest-column-pacific-killer-whales-are-dying-new-research-shows-why/