Ships slowing down in west coast channel to protect endangered orcas

As part of a new two-month trial, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority is asking all vessels transiting a busy channel to slow down to save the whales.

The targeted area is the Haro Strait, a channel off Washington state’s San Juan Island that’s a popular route for commercial vessels. But the channel is also the summer habitat of the endangered Puget Sound orcas, and activists worry the heavy traffic is affecting the health of the whales.

Since orcas use echolocation clicks, whistles, jaw claps and pulsed calls to navigate, communicate and to hunt salmon, commercial vessels can interfere with underwater noise. The port authority is asking cruise ships, ferries, bulk containers and other commercial vessels to reduce their speeds to 11 knots through the strait in the hopes that it’ll also reduce underwater noise. The average speed of vessels in the strait range from 13 to 18 knots.

“Noise can interfere with these really important functions such as eating, navigating and communication together as a family group,” said Marla Holt, a wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in an interview with the CBC.

Within the first week of its launch in early August, nearly 60 percent of commercial vessels reduced their speed. To encourage more vessels to slow down, the port is offering $500 stipend for each slower trip.

The Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program, which is led by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, says the key threats to orcas in the region include acoustic disturbance, ship collisions, environmental contaminants and availability to prey.

The current population of orcas in the area is just 78 and it has not shown signs of recovery since the 1980s.

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