The new whale watching rules we discussed in our previous article apply to kayaks and most commercial and private boats. They are meant to protect the orcas from sound pollution that can interrupt hunting and cause stress in whales. Strangely, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) applied these new regulations to include silent sea kayaks while exempting freighters and military vessels. Obviously, these huge ships are the fastest and loudest in the whales’ habitat, and thereby pose the greatest risk of colliding with or deafening the whales. Military vessels are even allowed to use their new high-energy sonar that has been proven to kill whales and drive survivors from their home. Military ships were also given permission by NMFS to drop bombs and shoot torpedoes in the whales’ most critical habitat. It seems that NMFS believes that silent kayaks are more of a threat to the survival of orca whales than the most advanced military weapon systems!
NMFS has rightly concluded that orca whales in the San Juan Islands are not always capable of finding enough salmon to survive. Now that we humans have destroyed the majority of salmon spawning habitat, prey numbers are so low in some years that killer whales have starved and been unable to give birth. Our San Juan Islands kayaking tour route is one of very few places in Washington where salmon congregate in sufficient numbers to make hunting easy for orcas. (The concentrations of salmon along San Juan Island are why our kayaking tours are able to see orca whales on most days.)
In light of these scientific facts, we can only speculate as to why NMFS has decided to exempt commercial salmon fishing boats from the new orca whale watching regulations. Fishermen can drop nets directly in the whales’ path despite the risk of entanglement and drowning. They can net endangered salmon in the most critical killer whale feeding spots, taking fish away from potentially starving whales. In Alaskan waters, NMFS has given permission to commercial fisherman to throw dynamite or shoot orca whales if they dare steal fish from their lines.
I’m sure the hypocrisy of NMFS is apparent to anyone familiar with the situation. That federal regulators can condone throwing explosives at orcas in one location and propose banning kayaking with killer whales at another is simply beyond belief!
Photo courtesy of Captain Jim Maya, operator of the best orca whale watching cruises in the San Juan Islands.