The Whale Protection Zone: Nuts, Bolts, and Support

By Elora West|January 16, 2017|News|

NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has been studying the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) and the issues that haunt them. NMFS has concluded that there are three major impediments to the recovery of the SRKW: food scarcity (primarily Chinook salmon), pollutants in their environment, and noise and harassment from vessels. We at Orca Relief agree that those three issues are significant impediments, but we would add climate change, threat of a catastrophic oil spill, and military acoustic/sonar maneuvers to the list. Orca Relief and I are committed to the full recovery of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Most of the identified impediments to SRKW recovery are pretty much self-explanatory. However, unless one is knowledgeable about how orcas use sound to navigate, hunt, and interact with each other, it may not be easy to fully understand how nearby motorized vessels (even small ones) can generate sound, particularly in critical frequencies, that disrupts the orcas’ abilities to effectively use sound. The scientific record is crowded with studies on the effects of vessels and their noise upon the orcas. We have compiled a significant list of papers on the subject and have it available on our website. By addressing noise and other vessel effects, we are not just acting willy-nilly. It is a science-based concern and you can read the papers for yourself.

Orca Relief, with the Center for Biological Diversity, and Project SeaWolf recently collaborated to construct a petition under the US Administrative Procedures Act calling upon NMFS to take action under its various authorities to enact the rules necessary to implement a Whale Protection Zone. We took positive action and have asked for a process for NMFS to take quick action to address the various impediments to SRKW recovery. We believe action is needed and is needed now because the SRKW are on the brink of extinction. They simply do not have the time for humans to continue to study the problem and work out time-consuming solutions. Yes, continued study is useful and long-term solutions are needed, but waiting is not an option for the SRKW.

The intent and purpose of the Whale Protection Zone is to reduce SRKW exposure to human-caused noise and disturbance and to ensure that SRKWs have unimpeded access to their primary foraging and resting habitat during spring, summer, and autumn months. NMFS has acknowledged that protecting “portions of the whales’ habitat along the west side of San Juan Island would protect the whales 1) from multiple threats; 2) in an area the local [human] community already recognizes; and 3) [by providing] opportunities to evaluate the effectiveness of the area.”[1]

Our proposal is not a call for a “no-go” zone. Nothing in our proposal is intended to exclude non-motorized vessels, transiting vessels, Tribal activity, or fishing activity within the zone. The only restriction on these types of vessel activity would be to honor the existing stand off distances and to adhere to a no-wake speed limit. The only activity our proposal excludes is motorized whale watching. So the only people who have something to lose from our proposal are those who follow orcas and other cetaceans in their private vessels or those who charge people for the experience of following orcas and other cetaceans in the Whale Protection Zone.

Our proposal also calls for a permit system to better regulate the number of motorized vessels operating around the orcas and other cetaceans at any particular time and place in US waters of the Salish Sea. The constant following by motorized whale watching vessels causes significant hardship for the orcas, which is significantly different from transiting vessels. The SRKW have everything to gain from our proposal. I urge you to read the full petition and review the science behind it.

(1) We agree that availability of prey is an important issue, but it is not the only issue.

(2) With the population is such grave circumstances, we should be doing all we can to help them, rather than limiting ourselves to any single risk factor. We are asking for dam removal and other controversial actions far from the Puget Sound for the benefit of salmon and the SRKW. Why are some not willing to make some sacrifices here on their behalf?

(3) The protection zone under consideration includes areas deemed essential for successful foraging, so the zone actually may help address the salmon issue as well as disturbance. In essence, the whales are less likely to be disturbed in their key foraging areas. There could be other essential areas. Let us identify those as well and look at ways to protect them.

(4) Unless we all take action on this proposal and on other proposals, we will simply love the whales to death. We will quite literally watch them go extinct. Taking action now to establish a WPZ does not eliminate the need for all of us, including government agencies, to continue working on the other impediments. It is not a “distraction” at all, but is complimentary to other more time consuming efforts and helps to draw attention to the plight of the SRKW.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Project SeaWolf joined Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance in presenting this proposal to NOAA. A number of other serious and respected individuals / organizations have already written letters to NOAA in support of our proposal. They include:

Laura Hendricks, Director Coalition To Protect Puget Sound

Mark J. Spalding, President The Ocean Foundation

Captain Paul Watson, Founder and President Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Louie Psihoyos, Executive Director, Oceanic Preservation Society 

Roger Payne, PhD Founder/President Ocean Alliance (See also:

Laura Bridgeman, Director Sonar

Colleen Weiler,
WDC Fellow, Rekos Fellowship for Orca Conservation Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Lee First, North Sound Baykeeper

Eleanor Hines, Lead Scientist Resources for Sustainable Communities 

Beth Pike, MEM Marine Conservation Institute

Karen Mahon, Canadian National Director

Matt Krogh, Extreme Oil Campaign Director

Stand earth, Formerly ForestEthics

Also, over 87,000 individuals have signed the Care2 petition since November in support of the WPZ and so can you: click here.

We urge everyone to join in the process and let NOAA, NMFS know that there is widespread support for the proposed Whale Protection Zone. Click here to comment in support of a Whale Protection Zone!

To ensure our (NOAA, NMFS) decision about whether to accept the petition and move forward with the petitioned action to establish a whale protection zone is based on the best available scientific and commercial information, we are soliciting information from the public, governmental agencies, Tribes, the scientific community, industry, environmental entities, and any other interested parties concerning the petitioned action. In particular we request information and comments on: (1) The advisability of and need for regulations to establish a whale protection zone; (2) the geographic scope of regulations; (3) alternative management options for regulating vessel interactions with killer whales, including but not limited to the option in the petition; (4) scientific and commercial information regarding the effects of vessels on killer whales and their habitat; (5) information regarding potential economic effects of regulating vessel interactions; and (6) any additional relevant information that NMFS should consider should it accept the petition. To inform your comments, information on the previous vessel regulations, the petition and other supporting documents is available here

You may submit information on this document identified by NOAA-NMFS-2016-0152 and the petition by either of the following methods:

  • Electronic submission: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal To submit comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal, click here, follow the “Comment Now!” icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments.
  • Mail or hand-delivery: Lynne Barre, NMFS West Coast Region, 7600 Sand Point Way NE., Seattle, WA 98115.

Instructions: Comments sent by any other method, to any other address or individual, or received after the end of the comment period, may not be considered by NMFS. All comments received are a part of the public record and will generally be posted for public viewing on without change. All personal identifying information (e.g., name, address, etc.), confidential business information, or otherwise sensitive information submitted voluntarily by the sender will be publicly accessible. NMFS will accept anonymous comments (enter“N/A” in the required fields if you wish to remain anonymous).

For the Orcas,
Scott West
Executive Director
Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance

[1] NMFS 2010. Final Environmental Assessment for New Regulations to Protect Killer Whales from Vessel Effects in Inland Waters of Washington. RIN 0648-AV15, p. 4-17; 4-19.

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