Washington’s Orca-saving Program to Silence Vessels Shows Early Success, Launches GPS-based App to Track Whales

The organizers of a pilot initiative that aids orca whales in Puget Sound by requesting commercial boats to slow down, announced 61% involvement in the first month. 

The ceremony occurred at the Seattle Aquarium on Friday, Dec. 9, as reported by GeekWire.

The Initiative

“Quiet Sound,” an organization based out of Washington state, is leading the charge to study and mitigate the negative impacts of vessel noise and physical disturbance on southern resident killer whales in the state’s waters. 

For the record, there are now 73 members of this critically endangered whale group.

Because whales rely on echolocation for communication and foraging, it is believed that environmental noise poses a threat to these species.

The Southern Resident Orca Task Force, created in 2018 by Washington Governor Jay Inslee to offer suggestions for killer whale recovery, was responsible for the creation of the Quiet Sound program.

At the gathering, Inslee stated, “Nothing gets Washingtonian’s hearts beating faster than the sight of an orca fin in Puget Sound.”

He said they now understand that reducing noise in Puget Sound is only one of many measures that must be taken to preserve this spectacular natural area for future generations. “And I’m excited about our early success in that regard.”

The test program runs from Oct. 24 through Dec. 22, during peak whale season. 

To protect marine life and preserve navigational safety, commercial boats traveling through a section of North Puget Sound are advised to reduce their speed to 14.5 or 11 knots, respectively. 

According to Rachel Aronson, director of Quiet Sound, whales have been seen on “more than half of the slowdown days” thus far.

When it comes to whale conservation efforts, Quiet Sound is quite similar to a program called ECHO in British Columbia.

Seattle port commissioner Fred Felleman told GeekWire that ships’ familiarity with the ECHO program made it easier for them to comply with the new Puget Sound pilot program.

Tech Adoption

Quiet Sound’s Aronson demonstrated a new software by the Canadian nonprofit group Ocean Wise that uses GPS to track the whereabouts of whales in Puget Sound. 

The app is linked to established whale warning systems and applications that let users report sightings and is accessible to commercial boats.

Based on Aronson’s interview with GeekWire, the new software is designed to boost adherence in the slowdown program by helping mariners check that whales are nearby.

Underwater disturbance in Puget Sound will also be studied as part of Quiet Sound’s mission to locate noisy areas and potential sites for noise buffer zones. The ultimate goal is to integrate hydrophone data into the new app.

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Future Plans

Aronson cites vessel disturbance as one of the leading causes of population decreases among southern resident orcas. Other major factors include environmental contaminants and a lack of Chinook salmon, the orcas’ preferred food supply.

In response to these, other initiatives are undertaken by the state to aid whales, such as improving salmon habitat and clearing up hazardous trash.

Soon, Quiet Sound will expand its underwater noise-detecting capabilities, conduct studies on the noise caused by rapid ferries in Washington state, and analyze the results of the commercial vessel slowdown.

Washington state, federal government agencies, and the ports of Seattle and Tacoma contribute to the organization’s budget.

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