RECREATIONAL BOATing ASSOCIATION OF WASHINGTON
News release Jun 29, 2023
Contact: Julie Watson, 360-902-2580
Media contact: Eryn Couch, 360-890-6604
Researchers identify late-stage pregnancy in J pod
OLYMPIA – With numerous Southern Resident killer whales in poor body condition, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) today issued an emergency rule requiring commercial whale-watching vessels to stay at least one-half nautical mile away from 11 vulnerable whales this summer, and the Department encourages all boaters to Be Whale Wise and do the same.
Using measurements from drone photographs, researchers from SR3 Sealife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research identified one late-stage pregnancy among the Southern Resident killer whale population and several members in poor condition based on observations between September 2022 and June 2023.
The Department’s emergency rule designates 10 whales in poor body condition and one whale likely to still be in the latter stages of pregnancy as “vulnerable.” 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 within a half-nautical mile circle around the vulnerable whales and their traveling companions. In alignment with existing commercial whale watching rules, commercial operators also must stay one-half nautical mile from calves under the age of one, which currently would include the recently-photographed possible new L pod calf.
Of the 10 whales in the poorest body condition, six are from J pod, three are from L pod, and one is from K pod. Classified as ‘body condition state one’, the condition of these whales falls in the lowest 20% of previous measurements for their age and sex, and the whales in this state have a two to three times higher probability of subsequent mortality. The recent designation includes six whales that were also identified as vulnerable in 2022, underscoring their poor condition and the time it can take to recover.
SR3 also reported six late-stage pregnancies in the SRKW population when those individuals were last measured, but based on the timing of when the images were taken, most of the pregnancies have likely ended as of summer 2023. These whales may have calves with them when they return to the Salish Sea, but over two-thirds of Southern Resident killer whale pregnancies result in miscarriages or early mortality of calves that are born. At least one whale, J36 (Alki), is still in late-stage pregnancy as of June 2023, and she is included among the whales conferred with vulnerable status in hopes of improving her chances of a successful birth and recovery.
“We are pleased to be able to use our data from fall, winter and spring to provide the most current information on the body condition and health of the whales, including data collected just this past week,” said Dr. John Durban, a Senior Scientist with SR3 SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research.
“It is concerning however, that there remain so many whales in poor condition, and further evidence of pregnancy loss” said Dr. Holly Fearnbach, the Marine Mammal Research Director for SR3 and the second member of the research team. “We will continue to use our non-invasive research to monitor the health of the whales, and hope to see improvements and new calves.”
The designation follows new legislation passed this spring that will create a mandatory 1,000-yard —roughly equal to one-half nautical mile— vessel buffer around Southern Residents starting in January 2025. This 1,000-yard buffer will apply year-round to all vessels, with limited exemptions for situations like oil spill response or compliance with vessel traffic service or safety requirements. This expanded protection is aimed at improving the entire Southern Resident killer whale population’s ability to successfully forage and recover in terms of health and population numbers.
“This vulnerable orca designation is an interim measure to bolster protection for the most vulnerable of this already vulnerable population,” said Julie Watson, Ph.D., WDFW killer whale policy lead. “We’re looking forward to having the new vessel regulations in place in 2025 when the whole population will be granted greater protection. In the meantime, we encourage all boaters to start now and give this endangered population ample space.”
While the commercial whale-watching fleet already stays at this distance most of the year and year-round for whales designated vulnerable, recreational boaters are invited to also practice voluntarily offering the Southern Residents the 1,000-yard buffer ahead of when it becomes mandatory in 2025. The public is also invited to join the Department’s Orca Regulations Communication Advisory Group (ORCA Group) to advise on the best tools and strategies to help recreational boaters comply with the enhanced distance buffer. More information about the Group and opportunities to participate are available on the Department’s website.
With vulnerable designations in place since the start of the Department’s Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program in 2021, this year’s designation marks the third year commercial whale watching operators will give vulnerable whales extra space, with some operators electing to refrain from watching endangered Southern Residents entirely.
The vulnerable whale restrictions go into effect ahead of the July-September season when commercial viewing of Southern Resident killer whales is otherwise permitted daily during certain hours. Licensed operators are not permitted to approach Southern Resident killer whales 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. Combined with the designation of 13 whales as vulnerable in summer 2022, many companies are now operating year-round offering tours that do not view Southern Resident killer whales, but instead view other, healthier populations such as Bigg's killer whales, humpback whales, gray whales, and other marine mammals.
All boaters are strongly encouraged to give Southern Resident killer whales the same one-half nautical mile (roughly 1,000 yard) buffer, and to treat any killer whales observed as endangered Southern Resident killer whales if unable to distinguish between killer whale ecotypes.
To see a full list of whales designated as vulnerable, reference the emergency rule. For more information the Department’s Commercial Whale Watching Program, reference WDFW’s website.
Current Be Whale Wise regulations
While boaters are encouraged to stay 1,000 yards from the Southern Residents, current 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.
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.
For more details about steps recreational boaters can take to keep the whales – and themselves – safe, visit BeWhaleWise.org.
The public is also encouraged to view killer whales at shore-based sites along the Whale Trail. More information, including optimal viewing locations along Puget Sound and the Washington coast, is available on The Whale Trail’s website.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife works to preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities.