Ships slowing in busy channel to protect endangered orcas

  • Sep. 3, 2017 11:30 a.m.

Ships moving through a busy channel off Washington state’s San Juan Island are slowing down this summer as part of a study to determine whether that can reduce noise and benefit a small, endangered population of killer whales.

The Puget Sound orcas spend summer months in a major shipping channel in the Salish Sea that is critical habitat for the whales.

The trial, led by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, is trying to understand whether reducing commercial vessel speeds can reduce underwater noise. Orcas use clicks, calls and other sounds to navigate, communicate and forage mainly for salmon.

Noise and other impacts from vessels is one of three major threats facing the whales. Lack of prey and pollution are the others. They currently number 78.

The two-month trial asks cruise ships, ferries, bulk containers and other commercial vessels to voluntarily slow to 11 knots through Haro Strait. Average vessel speeds typically range from 13 knots for bulk carriers to 18 knots for container ships. The project began in early August and ends Oct. 6.

Nearly five dozen industry participants, including Washington State Ferries and Holland America Line, have formally agreed to slow down when it’s feasible and safe, port officials said. Recreational and whale-watching boats are encouraged to slow down as well.

In the first week, about 59 per cent of commercial vessels reduced their speed. Participation increased to about 68 per cent in the second week. It dropped to about 55 per cent in the third week with stronger tidal currents contributing to concerns about costs and not meeting schedules. On average, 95 commercial vessels transit Haro Strait each week.

“We’re certainly very encouraged for that level of participation,” said Orla Robinson, program manager for the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Conservation program led by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

The program launched in 2014 to bring shipping industry and other groups together to reduce impacts of shipping-related activities to orcas in the southern coast of British Columbia.

The port is offering $500 each trip when ships slow down. Earlier this year, it began offering discounted harbour rates for quieter ships and vessels that install technology to reduce propeller and other noise.

“Noise can interfere with these really important functions such as eating, navigating and communicating to stay together as a family group,” said Marla Holt, a research wildlife biologist who studies marine mammal acoustics with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

There’s evidence that slowing down can be an effective way to reduce underwater noise from vessels, she said. Reducing vessel speed by one knot can reduce noise level by one decibel.

Studies have shown the whales spend more time travelling and less time foraging in the presence of boat traffic. Their calls are also louder when noise levels are higher.

“Just by listening to the ocean, it becomes quite clear that ships are dominating the landscape,” said Scott Veirs, a marine biologist with Beam Reach, who will independently study how orcas respond to the slower ship speeds during the trial. His research is privately funded and independent of the port project.

Veirs said his study will use a network of hydrophones — microphones that detect underwater sound waves — to analyze whether orcas change the sounds associated with their foraging.

When orcas hunt for Chinook salmon, they send out a click and listen for the echo of the click off the fish, he said. “If the noise is making that hunting process more difficult, they might click louder, or might click more often or stop altogether,” he said.

Researchers with Seattle-based Oceans Initiative will lead another study looking at changes in the orcas’ surface behaviour in response to the noise, Veirs said.

The trial also comes as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries is considering a whale protection zone off the west coast of San Juan Island. Most motorized vessels would be banned if a no-go zone is approved.

Several groups who petitioned for the zone argue it’s a common-sense approach to reduce boat noise and disturbance that can be put in place immediately.

Others worry the efforts will require too much time and money and divert attention from the fact that orcas don’t have enough of their preferred Chinook salmon to eat. Some have suggested NOAA Fisheries implement a speed zone in Haro Strait as an alternative.

Just Posted

PHOTO: Black Friday shoppers hunt for bargains

Red Deer retailers participate in annual event

Red Deer city councillor re-elected to AUMA board

Buck Buchanan says he’ll continue bringing local issues to the table

A long wait ends: Trudeau to apologize to excluded residential school students

GOOSE BAY, N.L. — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be in Goose… Continue reading

Trump wants to end welfare as Bill Clinton knows it

WASHINGTON — Overhauling welfare was one of the defining goals of Bill… Continue reading

UK bookmaker suspends bets on when Prince Harry will marry

LONDON — A major London bookmaker has suspended betting on whether Prince… Continue reading

VIDEO: Red Deerians taste what the city has to offer

Red Deerians sampled some of the finest foods Central Alberta restaurants have… Continue reading

Volunteer with victim services in Red Deer

Learn more at info session on Nov. 27

Updated: Missing Sylvan Lake women found

Women were reported missing earlier this week

Liberals propose billions for affordable housing, including individual benefits

A Liberal government fond of promising help for those working hard to… Continue reading

Alberta Party sees growth in Central Alberta

Greg Clark addressed health care needs addressed in Red Deer

Ponoka council freezes Ponoka Fire Department spending

All discretionary spending frozen until full budget numbers are presented

WATCH: Ponoka’s Festival of Trees sees continued support

Three days of celebration and fundraising held at the Calnash Ag Event Centre

Creationist will speak at home-schooling convention in Red Deer

Ken Ham has debated Bill Nye on the Earth’s origins

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month