Ports gather diverse maritime interests to protect endangered orcas by reducing ship noise

The Port of Tacoma, The Northwest Seaport Alliance, Port of Seattle, Washington State Ferries, NOAA, and the Puget Sound Partnership co-convened a workshop of a broad range of experts and interests to identify ways to reduce underwater noise in effort to support recovery of the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales. Underwater noise can be harmful to Southern Resident orcas because it impedes their ability to use sonar to hunt prey and communicate. 

The workshop was held at the Bell Harbor Conference Center on Thursday, Oct. 3 and was attended by state, federal, tribal and Canadian government representatives, researchers, natural resource agencies, whale conservation groups and representatives of the maritime industry. The goal of the workshop was to explore the possibility of establishing a program to reduce the exposure of our endangered orca to ship noise such as ECHO established by the Port of Vancouver, British Columbia.

“It was heartening to have such a broad range of expertise in the same room committed to tackling the critical issue of orca survival in the Salish Sea,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner and Northwest Seaport Alliance Managing Member, Fred Felleman, who studied killer whales in graduate school and championed the workshop. “As we know from the study of cooperative hunters such as wolves, lions and orcas, we can accomplish great things when we work together, and the recovery of our iconic orca hinges on our collaboration.”

“While The Northwest Seaport Alliance has seen steady increases in container cargo volume over the last decade, there are actually fewer ships calling at our gateway now than in the past. This is because vessels have gotten larger and can carry more cargo per trip, which reduces ship traffic,” said John McCarthy, Port of Tacoma commissioner and Managing Member of The Northwest Seaport Alliance. “We want to do our part to help the species recover in Puget Sound.”

“This workshop was a tremendous success, providing a broad sense of shared responsibility, collaboration, and commitment to help the whales,” said Scott Veirs, coordinator of Orcasound.net, a cooperative effort of 12 Washington based organizations that monitor orca habitat with underwater microphones. “We must use both visual and acoustic means to track the whales if we are to reduce the impacts of vessel noise and advance the whales’ recovery.”

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Gov. Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force issued their Task Force Report and Recommendations on Nov. 16, 2018. Thursday’s underwater noise workshop marks an important step in implementing Recommendation #22, which specifies that Washington State should establish a program like ECHO, which was created by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority in 2014. ECHO has been successful in studying underwater vessel noise and implementing voluntary measures to achieve significant reductions. 

Specifically, Recommendation 22 includes:

  • Create a program similar to Port of Vancouver’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation program (ECHO) for Washington State, including participation by ports, whale watching operators, private vessel operators and tribal governments as desired.
  • Coordinate with the ECHO Program on transboundary efforts to reduce noise impacts to Southern Residents. Provide funding to complete an underwater acoustic monitoring network for Puget Sound, filling in gaps — such as on South San Juan Island — and supporting acoustic and visual mapping to improve the ability to identify when and where Southern Resident orcas are present.

This workshop has started an extended outreach process to tribes, government agencies, and other stakeholder groups. Areas of focus included acoustic monitoring, real time notification of orca presence to mariners, vessel operations, and technology and innovation. From these discussions, the goal is to have necessary agreements in place by the middle of 2020.

About the Port of Tacoma

The Port of Tacoma is an economic engine for South Puget Sound. More than 29,000 jobs are generated by port activity, which also provides $195 million per year in state and local taxes to support education, roads and police and fire protection for our community. As a partner in The Northwest Seaport Alliance, the Port of Tacoma is also a major cargo gateway to Asia and Alaska.