An orca whale leaps out of the water near a whale watching boatJuly 31, 2015, in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands, Wash. [AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File]

Ships slowing to protect endangered orcas

SEATTLE — Ships moving through a busy channel off Washington state's San Juan Island are slowing down this summer as part of a study to determine whether that can reduce noise and benefit a small, endangered population of killer whales.

The Puget Sound orcas spend summer months in a major shipping channel in the Salish Sea that is critical habitat for the whales.

The trial, led by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, is trying to understand whether reducing commercial vessel speeds can reduce underwater noise. Orcas use clicks, calls and other sounds to navigate, communicate and forage mainly for salmon.

Noise and other impacts from vessels is one of three major threats facing the whales. Lack of prey and pollution are the others. They currently number 78.

The two-month trial asks cruise ships, ferries, bulk containers and other commercial vessels to voluntarily slow to 11 knots through Haro Strait. Average vessel speeds typically range from 13 knots for bulk carriers to 18 knots for container ships. The project began in early August and ends Oct. 6.

Nearly five dozen industry participants, including Washington State Ferries and Holland America Line, have formally agreed to slow down when it's feasible and safe, port officials said. Recreational and whale-watching boats are encouraged to slow down as well.

In the first week, about 59 percent of commercial vessels reduced their speed. Participation increased to about 68 percent in the second week. It dropped to about 55 percent in the third week with stronger tidal currents contributing to concerns about costs and not meeting schedules. On average, 95 commercial vessels transit Haro Strait each week.

"We're certainly very encouraged for that level of participation," said Orla Robinson, program manager for the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Conservation program led by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

The program launched in 2014 to bring shipping industry and other groups together to reduce impacts of shipping-related activities to orcas in the southern coast of British Columbia.

The port is offering $500 each trip when ships slow down. Earlier this year, it began offering discounted harbor rates for quieter ships and vessels that install technology to reduce propeller and other noise.

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