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Nov 15, 2018

The Three to Five Year Whale Watching Ban: For Conservation, or the Economy?

A significant move that will impact 32 operators, in 19 different ports in Washington State and British Columbia, is this really the answer to the dwindling Orca population?


Sean Verity

With just 74 Orcas remaining in the waters off the coast of the State of Washington and neighbouring British Columbia, there is clearly a problem. As the Center for Whale research explains, “The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), or Orcas, are actually a large extended family, or clan, comprised of three pods: J, K, and L pods.

As of July 2018, the SRKW population totals 75 (editors note: this has since dropped to 74) whales: J Pod=23, K Pod=18, L Pod=34.”

Photo by Frank Busch


We need to do everything we can to help ensure the future of these great animals and the State of Washington, appeared to take a great stride in March 2018. 

The Executive Order, signed by The State of Washington Governor Jay Inslee, detailed that “The Task Force was charged with preparing a comprehensive report and recommendations for recovering Southern Residents, with a full draft due by September 24, 2018, and a final report by November 16, 2018”. The “Executive Order 18-02: Southern Resident Killer Whale and Recovery Task Force” can be found in full here.  

The task force met that deadline, and just a couple of days ago, Governor Jay Inslee’s team voted to recommend a three to five-year moratorium on commercial whale watching for Southern Resident killer whales.

The knee jerk reaction is that this appears to be great news. If whale watching boats are causing a problem, then this is an important move to ensure their survival. However, there is more to this story and we start with the FAQ section of the Pacific Whale Watching Association’s website, where a simple questions is asked, but there is far from a straightforward answer.


“There’s no evidence that whale watching is a significant factor in their decline. If that were the case, transient killer whales and humpback whales wouldn’t be doing so well in the same environment. Scientific studies on stress hormones in the southern residents show that when there’s sufficient food, boat noise and disturbance have a low effect. But when chinook salmon are scarce, as they are now year after year, and the whales have to work longer and harder to find what little food there is, any noise disturbance undoubtedly has a greater effect.”

This passage alludes to the depth that we will need to go into to establish whether this recommendation really makes that much sense. 

Contrary to the Pacific Whale Watching Association’s answer, Donna Sandstrom, Director of The Whale Trail, but poignantly also a member of the Orca Task Force that has made the recommendation which led to the executive order, offered another perspective entitled “Cut the toxins and boat noise, and boost salmon, so orcas can survive“. Within this article, published in The Seattle Times, Donna agrees that the “best available science shows that to recover the orcas we must both increase the amount of salmon” but that a decrease in the amount of noise is necessary too. Within the same article a study is referenced, “that shows that the southern residents lose 5.5 hours of foraging time each day due to noise and disturbance from commercial vessels and whale-watching boats specifically”.

Elsewhere, Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party of Canada tweeted.


With this Executive Order being passed in the State of Washington, you might be asking yourself why this might influence Canadian ports and Whale watching companies? As far as we’re aware at The Outdoor Journal, there are not any planned Canadian recommendations, legislation or any kind of moratorium.

Brett Soberg, who runs Eagle Wing tours but also speaks on behalf of British Columbia’s whale watching industry told Global News that “The whale-watching industry is a trans-national. Canadian companies are regularly in American waters tracking animals. If Washington state bans viewing it will have an impact on how Canadian tour operators conduct their business, but there are very few details about what could happen. This really surprised us.


“Honesty was crushed by politics and vested interests, even within agencies whose responsibility it is to manage natural resources sustainably.”

These are the words of Ken Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research. These feelings are echoed elsewhere by many activists who feel that this decision to target commercial whale watchers is skirting the key issue of dams cutting off the Orca’s food supply. Put simply, Salmon cannot make their way down the rivers due to huge dams that “produce an average of 1,000 megawatts of power a year, or about 5 percent of electricity generated in the Pacific Northwest, and account for about 12 percent of BPA’s power“, according to K5 news. A huge amount of power, that has a huge amount of commercial and therefore political value too.

they overwhelmingly rely on Chinook salmon”

National Geographic published an article that spells out the importance of Salmon to the SRKW’s in their article “How Killer Whales Went from Hated, to Adored, to Endangered”. Nat Geo explain that “What’s hurting them is, above all, the lack of available prey” and that “Southern Residents don’t just rely primarily on Chinook salmon; they overwhelmingly rely on Chinook salmon“.

Elsewhere, Mark Sawyer, a Whale watching guide for Jamie’s Whale Watching Tours posted the below on Instagram.


View this post on Instagram


I’ve woken up disheartened and frustrated with the politics involved with the Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery. This week, a moratorium on whale watching has been proposed, and not simply because I am a whale watching guide, I find it beyond ill-advised. Rather than get into every little detail about the threats and recovery strategy for the SRKWs,that you can find elsewhere, I’ll cover why I feel the decision is a poor one. The issue is, and has been for a while, salmon restoration. Not sport fishing, not whale watching, not “too many seals”. I’m not saying boat noise is not an issue, but there is a huge difference between the noise generated by a small vessel and the noise generated by a tanker. Here’s where it becomes, as wildlife issues tend to become, economy vs. environment. Are the politicians willing to hinder short-term economic gain for long-term environmental benefit? It would seem that the cost of removing the dams is too much. It would seem the reduction in tanker traffic is too politically costly. There are other far more beneficial options that would impact the SRKWs greater, but elected officials are reluctant to choose these options. I believe that the whale watching industry has, in the eyes of the politicians, helped create this problem. We inform. We highlight issues. We educate. We have had meaningful conversations with guests about the issues that have arisen. We’ve shared pictures captured on these tours. We’ve explained what steps they can take if they feel motivated to do so. The removal of whale watching will reduce some boat noise. It will also reduce the messaging that is bringing these issues to the fore. It will reduce the ability for the general public to feel as engaged in the issues. It will reduce the amount of coverage that the SRKWs recieve. All that doesn’t have a net benefit for the SRKWs, it allows them to continue to slip away. Only they’ll slip away more quietly. . . Photo is of a Bigg’s killer whale. This population is growing at 5% per year, and is now the killer whale population of focus for the whale watching industry in Victoria. SRKWs are being targeted on ~10% of tours.

A post shared by Mark Sawyer (@mark_sawyer) on

Brett Soberg, told Global News that “It’s pretty clear food scarcity, not noise from boats that is the biggest concern to the southern residents”. The situation does appear bizarre, that a few whale watching boats are being deemed an issue, whilst huge tankers and all the pleasure boats are not considered to be a more significant concern. 

Are the politicians willing to hinder short-term economic gain for long-term environmental benefit?

Andrew Trites, of the University of British Columbia, where he is the Director of UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, supported this observation, when he told CTV news that “Nothing’s being talked about for all the small pleasure boaters that are roaring around“. Andrew continues to explain that “We don’t ever talk about what’s happened to the food supply… The irony is that the whale-watching industry that takes out many, many people in each boat, they know the whales better than anybody else“. Elsewhere, Mark Malleson, the Prince of Whales, also told CTV that “Many of us are taking photographs, collecting data, so a huge attribute for the scientific community“.

The Orca Behaviour Institute has also argued that commercial whale watching should not be be considered a huge problem in comparison barge traffic and commercial fishing boats.


There are further explanations as to why the population of Southern Resident Killer Whales is dwindling. For many years, they were taken out of their natural habitats to be kept in captivity. It all started in the 60’s with Ted Griffin, a well known personality in Seattle as the founder of the Seattle Marine Aquarium. Ted brought the SRKW’s to his park, and as far as we know, became the first person to swim with one. Ted’s impact on the SRKW’s really solidified over coming years, as he went on to repeat this again and again, capturing dozens in order to satisfy the demand from aquariums around the world.

Jenny Atkinson of the Whale Museum told Advocacy for Animals, that “Originally, the main threat that everybody believes is what really caused this population decline was that capture era, where more than 50 individuals were taken out of this population for the captive industry.” Due to ease of transportation, it was often the smaller Whales that were taken, this meant that two generations of Southern Resident’s were removed from the oceans. Not only did this leave the pods with the obvious problem, but also a reduction in diversity within the gene pool. Ted’s legacy is that of a lasting threat to the existence of Southern Resident Killer Whales.

There are also curious examples from other geographic regions, that it’s important to take note of. The Government of Canada note that the “Northern Resident population has grown since the 1970s.  Since 2002, the population has experienced an average annual growth rate of 2.9%.  In 2017, the population numbered 309 individuals.  However, conservation concerns exist for this population, given its small size and slow growth rate.” In the 1970’s, the population stood at 120, so there has clearly been a huge improvement in an area so close to the waters frequented by the Southern Residents.

Why is this? How can the difference be so big between the Northern and Southern Residents? Lance Barrett-Lennard, director of the marine mammal program at the Vancouver Aquarium told the Haida Gwaii Observer that whilst the growth has been encouraging “They took a bit of a downturn in the late 1990s, during a time when chinook salmon were particularly scarce in some poor salmon years”. It’s a very interesting observation, and links can surely be drawn with the issues that the SRKW’s face. In times where the Salmon is plentiful the Northern Resident population has grown substantially.


This is clearly a complex issue, and it’s very difficult to draw clear conclusions. However, it’s obvious that most people who understand the situation and Orca’s better than anybody agree that food scarcity is the main issue. This is backed up by the success of the Northern Residents, who have had a sufficient source of food for a sustained period.

The resolution to conserving the Southern Residents means increasing salmon populations, but to do so would require drastic measures. A good example would be the removal of dams on the Snake River, which would ensure that greater numbers would be within range of the Orca’s. However, the removal of dams on the Snake River could mean a detrimental effect on the economy, a move that appears unlikely, even if it is in the face of huge environmental importance. Instead, recommendations to skirt this issue, and target whale watching tours is likely to continue, so that politicians can be seen to be doing something whilst protecting the economy over the conservation.

As Mark Sawyer of Jamie’s Whale Watching asks, the important question appears to be whether “the politicians willing to hinder short-term economic gain for long-term environmental benefit?

Cover Photo by Robert Pittman

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May 14, 2019

Bringing Kiwi Back to Wellington

As New Zealand announces a new plan to reverse the decline of the iconic kiwi bird, Wellingtonians are already lining up to save their emblematic bird.



Sean Verity

This article was made available to The Outdoor Journal via a press release by Tourism New Zealand.

As New Zealand announces a new plan to reverse the decline of the iconic Kiwi bird, Wellingtonians are already lining up to save their emblematic bird. Wellingtonians are known for their love of flat whites and their passion for the arts. But there’s a new pastime that’s rapidly growing in New Zealand’s capital and all around the country.

Assembling and setting traps for rats, stoats and other predators in their own backyards. It’s a somewhat unlikely hobby, but in Wellington alone, there are now more than 70 community groups involved in pest management.  They’re all aiming at making their home town the first predator-free capital city in the world and a paradise for native birds such as the tīeke (Saddleback), hihi (stitchbird), kākā, kākāriki and toutouwai (North Island robin). 

In Wellington alone there are now more than 70 community groups involved in pest management all aiming at making their home town the first predator-free capital city in the world. Photo by: Capital Kiwi

Ever since conservation project Zealandia created a fully fenced 225-hectare ecosanctuary within the city limits in 1999, native birdlife has returned to many suburbs and Wellingtonians have embraced their avian friends. The groups are part of a groundswell of community conservation initiatives sweeping New Zealand and delivering fantastic results.

“Where once it would have been a remarkable sight to see a single kākā (a boisterous native parrot) in the wilderness of our mountain ranges, we now have literally hundreds of them across Wellington city, screeching across city skies,” says self-confessed “bird nerd” Paul Ward. Buoyed by the birdsong orchestra he thought, “Why stop there? Let’s bring back New Zealand’s most iconic bird, the Kiwi.” “The only time I’d seen a Kiwi growing up was in a zoo, and that’s not right for our national taonga (treasure),” he insists. 

The flightless birds with hair-like feathers and the chopstick bill have been absent from Wellington for over a century due to the loss of their habitat and the spread of predators. Ward’s ambitious project Capital Kiwi hopes to lure Kiwi back to the Wellington region within the next decade. Approximately 4,400 traps will be set on 23,000 hectares of public and private land stretching from the outskirts of town to the coast.

“Kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime”

As long as stoats, ferrets and weasels are around, Kiwi chicks have hardly any chance of surviving their first year.  An average of 27 Kiwis are killed by predators each day according to charity ‘Kiwis for Kiwi’ which supports community-led initiatives around the country. They warn that at this rate “Kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime.” 

But projects in Rakiura / Stewart Island in the south of New Zealand, Whangarei Heads in the north and Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty have shown that with the involvement of the community as kaitiaki (guardians) it is possible to grow a wild Kiwi population. 

The project Capital Kiwi hopes to bring New Zealand’s iconic birds back to Wellington by setting more than 4,000 traps in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Photo by: Capital Kiwi.

Michelle Impey, from Kiwis for Kiwi explains that one of the challenges of Kiwi conservation is “getting people to understand and care about something they can’t see and don’t experience.”

Kiwis are nocturnal, and with only a few exceptions live far removed from cities, towns and villages. “Bringing Kiwi closer to where Kiwis live makes them top of mind, completely relevant, and creates a sense of ownership with those who are privileged enough to have them living on or near their land,” Impey adds. She hopes that the new project will create “a city of Kiwi conservationists” who feel a personal attachment to their national bird. 

In August 2018 the government’s Predator Free 2050 initiative, which aims to rid New Zealand of the most damaging introduced predators that threaten the nation’s natural wildlife by 2050, announced their support for Capital Kiwi, committing more than NZ$3.2 million over the next five years.  It may sound like a lot of money, but the other way of looking at this is “What is the cost if we don’t?” Ward ponders.

“Can we, as a nation of Kiwis, afford to let our national icon die and become extinct? What would that say about us as guardians of the taonga (treasure) that makes our country so special and unique?”


Ninety-year-old Ted Smith, who lives in the small seaside settlement of Makara just over the hills from Wellington, helped to kick off the project with the setting of the first trap in November. He and his local community started trapping in their backyards a decade ago which resulted in a remarkable increase in birdlife – tūī, kākā, kererū, pūkeko, kingfishers, quails and others. “If we allow Kiwi to die out then we deserve to be called idiots,” he says. Wellingtonians love the vision of having Kiwi rummaging through their gardens and Ward says he’s been overwhelmed with the offers of help and support from the community.  

“We want to see Kiwi come back into Wellington”

Capital Kiwi has received hundreds of emails from people keen to help. Schoolchildren are now monitoring tracking tunnels, mountain bikers and trail runners check reserve trap lines on lunchtime rides and families come together to build traps. If the eradication proves successful after three years, the Department of Conservation will look at translocating Kiwi to the hillsides. The hope is that in less than a decade, tourists will be able to post their Kiwi encounters on the outskirts of Wellington on social media, and locals will beam with pride at hearing the shrill call of the country’s iconic birds in their backyards. 

“I would love to be woken up by the sound of the Kiwi. We want to see Kiwi come back into Wellington,” the capital’s Major Justin Lester says. 

The Department of Conservation is backing Capital Kiwi too. “Getting Kiwi back into the hills of Wellington where people can hear them call is a great way to demonstrate what New Zealand could look like if we get rid of the stoats and ferrets,” DOC’s Jack Mace says. 

“It would certainly add another feather to Wellington’s cap as one of the best places to see New Zealand’s unique wildlife.”

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Cover Photo: New Zealand’s little spotted Kiwi at Zealandia Eco-sanctuary in Wellington. Photo by: Zealandia Eco-sanctuary


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