Orcas, also known as killer whales, swim in and around Puget Sound with the Seattle skyline in the background. (NOAA Photo)

A pilot program to help orca whales in Puget Sound by asking commercial vessels to slow down saw 61% participation in its first month, reported program leaders at an event Friday at the Seattle Aquarium.

The voluntary program is an initiative of Quiet Sound, an effort to research and reduce the effects of vessel noise and physical disturbance on southern resident killer whales in Washington state. This endangered population of whales has been in decline for years and now stands at 73 individuals.

External noise is thought to jeopardize the health of the population by interfering with whale communication and food-finding, which use echolocation.

Quiet Sound emerged as a result of guidance from the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, established in 2018 by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to develop recommendations for killer whale recovery.

“Nothing gets Washingtonian’s hearts beating faster than the sight of an orca fin in Puget Sound,” Inslee said at the event. “And now we know that there’s multiple things we need to do to make sure that our grandchildren get to see that wonderful site, one of which is to reduce the noise in Puget Sound. And I’m excited about our early success in that regard.”

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at an event for Quiet Sound in Seattle on Friday. (GeekWire Photo / Charlotte Schubert)

The pilot program lasts from Oct. 24 to Dec. 22, when whales are most active. Commercial vessels are asked to slow down to 14.5 or 11 knots, depending on vessel type, while transiting through a region of North Puget Sound. Whales were present during more than half of the slow-down days so far, said Quiet Sound director Rachel Aronson at the event.

Aronson also showcased a new app that maps the presence of whales in Puget Sound, developed by the Canadian nonprofit Ocean Wise. The app, available to commercial vessels, is connected to long-standing whale alert systems and apps that enable people to upload their sightings.

The new app helps mariners validate that whales are close by and is meant to increase compliance in the slow-down program, Aronson told GeekWire.

An app for commercial vessels to locate orca whales. (GeekWire Photo / Charlotte Schubert)

Quiet Sound also aims to study underwater noise in Puget Sound to identify noise hot spots and candidates for quiet reserves. Ultimately, the group would like to link hydrophone data to the new app.

Quiet Sound is similar to a program in British Columbia to protect whales called ECHO. ECHO is in its sixth year and has 93% compliance in its slow-down program.

Familiarity with the ECHO program eased the way for vessels to comply with the new Puget Sound pilot program, Seattle port commissioner Fred Felleman told GeekWire.

In addition to disturbance from vessels, two other main contributors to declines in the southern resident orca population are environmental toxins and scarcity of their primary food source, Chinook salmon, said Aronson.

Inslee also highlighted other state efforts to support whales such as fostering salmon habitat and removing toxic waste.

In the future, Quiet Sound plans to add more underwater noise sensing capacity, research the noise of Washington state’s fast ferries, and learn from the commercial vessel slowdown.

The organization’s funders include Washington state, U.S. government agencies, and the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

Quiet Sound’s leadership committee includes representatives of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association; the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission; the Makah Tribe; the Port of Seattle; the Port of Tacoma; the Seattle Aquarium; the Northwest Seaport Alliance; Maritime Blue, a private-public partnership; and other organizations. Maritime blue also provides staff support.

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