From: Peggy Andersen, Associated Press
Published May 9, 2006 12:00 AM

After Decades of Fear and Hostility, Are We Loving Orcas to Death?

SEATTLE — Fifty years ago, fishermen shot at Northwest killer whales they felt were eating too many salmon. Now, thousands of visitors pay an average of $75 a trip to see the orcas in their summer habitat around the San Juan Islands.

The love sightseers feel for the orcas, however, may be getting overwhelming for the bus-sized mammals. As many as 100 tour boats can be on the water at once, all jockeying for a good look at the animals, and researchers are concerned that the in-your-face attention is harassing orcas and keeping them from their prey.

"No doubt the perception of these whales has changed from something to be feared and destroyed to something to be hugged," said orca expert Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in the San Juan Islands. "And now along comes too much hugging."

Orcas, actually a kind of dolphin found in all the world's oceans, are prime examples of what researchers call "charismatic megafauna," big critters with a passionate human following. But the species' San Juan population has paid a price for some forms of that adoration.

Namu, a killer whale caught accidentally in a fishing net in 1965, became a Seattle waterfront sensation until his death a year later, helping create a demand for orcas in the booming new marine-aquarium trade. Dozens were caught and shipped, but just two survive -- Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium, and Corky at Sea World in San Diego.

Northwest captures were stopped in the 1970s, though the resident population -- which now numbers 87 -- is still struggling to recover to pre-capture levels, believed to have been about 120. Resident orcas that chase salmon in waters off Washington and British Columbia have been declared endangered by U.S. and Canadian authorities.

Researchers said the orcas are suffering from declining salmon runs, pollution and general vessel traffic, but also from the effects of the thriving whale-watching industry. As many as half a million visitors a year take tours offered by 30 companies or watch orcas from recreational craft.

"Anyone who's been in a crowded bar at night trying to talk to the person next to you should understand what that's like," said Mark Pakenham, who has worked with Canada's federally funded monitoring program.

At a recent U.S.-Canada symposium on how to help the population, University of Washington researcher David Bain reported declines in foraging of more than 30 percent when boats were present. The closer the boats came to whales, the steeper the decline.

Federal law requires vessels to cut their engines at 400 feet and to stay at least 100 yards away to avoid harassing the whales or hindering their ability to find prey. Both the U.S. and Canada have monitors on the water during the peak season.

But Canada has prosecuted just two whale-watch boat operators, fining each $6,500 for operating their vessels while surrounded by orcas, and the U.S. has yet to penalize anyone.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is investigating what would be the first whale-watching violation, for an incident that the skipper involved reported.

Last summer, a whale bumped a boat skippered by Brett Soberg of Victoria-based Eagle Wing Eco Tours. The boat wasn't moving, and Soberg quickly alerted authorities.

The whales were playing and changing direction, said Balcomb, who witnessed the encounter. "You couldn't have predicted it," he said. But that doesn't mean there should be no consequences, he added.

Soberg had been chided earlier by the Canadians for repeatedly parking in the path of the whales. It's a common violation, as vessels jockey for the best vantage point.

"Last year we recorded about 800 incidents in the summer... and about 550 were for parking in the path of whales," Pakenham said.

Talks on changes in whale-watching guidelines -- the government's and the industry's -- are ongoing.

Balcomb suggests the industry vessels travel as a group. "To people on shore and on other boats, it looks like a free-for-all out there," he said.

Source: Associated Press

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