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Here’s What You Can Do to Protect the Orcas

June 6, 2023

By Jon Sloan, Senior Manager, Environmental Programs, Port of Seattle

The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the world's most incredible wildlife and natural habitats. From the towering mountains of the Cascade Range to the waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, the region is a unique backdrop to a bustling urban city. One of the most iconic creatures of the Pacific Northwest is the orca, also known as the killer whale. Orcas are apex predators that play a critical role in the region's marine ecosystems by keeping prey populations in check and dispersing nutrients throughout the ocean. Our Southern Resident orcas are facing a number of threats, including habitat loss, pollution, and a diminishing food source. The Port of Seattle, along with other regional and industry leaders are making strides when it comes to protecting the critically endangered species’ habitat and future. 

June marks Orca Awareness Month and June 8 is World Ocean Day. While orcas deserve attention every month of the year, it is a good time to highlight what industries are doing to protect our oceans, and how you can help from home.

Five actions industry leaders are taking: 

1. Keeping a “Quiet Sound”

Underwater noise impacts orcas’ ability to hunt, communicate, navigate, and avoid danger. That noise in Puget Sound can come from a variety of sources, including (but not limited to) recreational boats, commercial vessels, and ferries. 

To address this issue, the Port of Seattle partnered with the Port of Tacoma, the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA), resource agencies, tribes, and non-profit organizations to develop the Quiet Sound Program. In addition to reducing underwater noise, the program is improving “real-time” systems for reporting whale sightings so that pilots of large commercial vessels can be alerted.

2. Making more fish

Chinook salmon are an important food source for Southern Resident orcas. In fact, Chinook make up more than 80% of their diet! Salmon is a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to the orcas. To help increase the Chinook population, the Port of Seattle is restoring marine, estuarine and freshwater habitat in the Green-Duwamish Watershed and Elliott Bay. These restored habitats are helping to make more fish for the orcas!  

3. Keeping Puget Sound a “no discharge zone”

Since 2004, the Port has been part of an agreement with Cruise Line International Association North West & Canada (CLIA-NWC), and Washington Department of Ecology to help prevent wastewater discharges from large cruise ships into all Washington waters. This agreement bans wastewater discharges, requires sampling and monitoring, and provides for inspections that help ensure that waters are kept clean for orcas.

4. Studying bull kelp forests with Seattle Aquarium

Bull kelp provides food and shelter for marine life, helps improve water quality, and stores carbon. Healthy kelp forests are a critical component of the Puget Sound and Salish Sea food web. Unfortunately, our region has seen a sharp decline in kelp forests. 

To better understand this decline and how to help restore bull kelp forests, the Port of Seattle and the Seattle Aquarium have partnered to use an underwater drone, also known as ROV Nereo, to take a closer look. Our researchers hope that more detailed study will help us better understand how to conserve, protect, and restore vital kelp forests at the Port of Seattle and across Puget Sound. 

5. Building sustainable shorelines

The Port’s Sustainable Shorelines Program (SSP) is replacing hard shoreline armor — such as vertical bulkheads and rip-rap — with “greener” alternatives that improve water quality, increase carbon storage, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife. The program is also increasing the production of terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates (bugs!), which are a critical prey resource for young Chinook salmon 

Five things you can do to help killer whales: 

1. Don’t dump in the Sound

 Puget Sound is a sensitive ecosystem; pollution is harmful to the Sound and the orcas. When you’re close to the Sound, dispose of waste properly and don’t dump oil, paint, trash, or other items and chemicals into storm drains or the water.  

2. Manage stormwater

Rainwater flows from your home or business into Puget Sound. As it travels towards the storm drains, it picks up pollutants which are harmful to fish and wildlife, including orcas. To help prevent this, use lawn and home care products that are non-toxic, and keep your gutters, drains, and driveways free of debris. And consider installing a rain garden —  they’re a beautiful and functional way to protect salmon and orcas!   

3. Respect boating regulations

Washington has several boating restrictions in place to protect Southern Resident orcas, including staying at least 300 yards away and slowing down to seven knots within half of a mile of orcas. If you see whale watch vessels that are stopped in a particular location, it’s a tell-tale sign that they may be around – so slow down and be careful!  Also, watch for the whale warning flag, which helps notify boaters when there’s a whale nearby. The flag is white, red, and yellow, with a black image of a whale tail.  Last, if you’re a boater, make sure you keep your boat well-maintained to ensure that it operates quietly and stays free of leaks.    

4. Safely dispose of hazardous chemicals

For the health of the orcas, wildlife habitats, and other living organisms — including us! — please don’t dispose of hazardous chemicals in the toilet or sink. Take them to a hazardous waste disposal facility. Most jurisdictions will take them for free. This includes cleaning products, medications, batteries, oil, and more. Contact your local jurisdiction or waste management company for more information.  

5. Support salmon recovery

Southern Resident orcas depend on salmon, but their population is in trouble due to habitat loss and pollution. You can support salmon recovery by volunteering to clean up and restore habitat at a stewardship event. Check out the Port’s events and look for others in the area.  

By taking these simple steps, and with the support of coordinated industry efforts, we can all protect the orcas, their precious habitat, and our beautiful region.   

Photo credit: "Southern Resident killer whales" by NOAA Fisheries West Coast is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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