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Nov. 23, 2020

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Ships slow down to protect orcas

Study seeks to reduce noise, impact of vessels

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An orca leaps out of the water in 2015 near a whale watching boat in the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands. Ships passing the narrow busy channel off the San Juan Islands are slowing down this summer as part of an experiment to protect the small endangered population of southern resident killer whales.
An orca leaps out of the water in 2015 near a whale watching boat in the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands. Ships passing the narrow busy channel off the San Juan Islands are slowing down this summer as part of an experiment to protect the small endangered population of southern resident killer whales. Associated Press files Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — Ships moving through a busy channel off Washington’s San Juan Islands 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, seeks to understand whether reducing commercial vessel speeds can reduce underwater noise. Orcas use clicks, calls and other sounds to navigate, communicate and forage.

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 percent of commercial vessels reduced their speed. Participation increased to about 68 percent in the second week. It dropped to about 55 percent 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 harbor 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 traveling and less time foraging in the presence of boat traffic.

“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.

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