Contact: Michael Harris, Former Executive Director,
Pacific Whale Watch Association / (206) 465-6692

December 1, 2016


PWWA’s Executive Director Michael Harris to Step Down After Five Years at the Helm


Michael Harris on assignment for ABC News Good Morning America in Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico with colleague Kevin Ely and whale watch pioneer Pachico Mayor.

     After five years at the helm, Michael Harris is stepping down as Executive Director of Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), focusing on the “other half of his life,” as a producer and photojournalist for ABC News and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker.  PWWA will be eliminating the Executive Director position it created for Harris, relying on its annually elected officers to direct the trade group.

     “It’s been a great five years,” explains Harris, who was recruited by PWWA members in 2011 to consult the Association after several years of internal and external discord. “And it started great, too.  I was immediately impressed that this huge international trade group run mostly by salt-of-the-sea alpha males put their trust in me, as a high-profile whale conservationist and journalist, to help them right the ship – not just to come in as some PR flak and punch out warm and fuzzy stories about how great the commercial whale watch operators are, but to truly help them reduce their footprint on the water, to use its resources to contribute directly to conservation science and actionable marine education among its passengers, and to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”

     Prior to coming on board with PWWA, Harris was President of the Board of Orca Conservancy, a petitioner to list the Southern Resident orcas under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  When the petition was rejected by the George W. Bush Administration in 2002, Harris and Orca Conservancy were one of four groups to sue NOAA Fisheries, ultimately winning an historic case in U.S. District Court in 2004, leading to the Southern Residents being listed as Endangered in 2005.  During his ESA efforts, Harris also was a leader on several highly publicized orca efforts – including the saving of an adult male transient (Bigg’s) killer whale stranded on Dungeness Spit, WA in late 2001, and the intervention to save the Northern Resident orca A73, or Springer, which would prove to be the first-ever successful rescue and repatriation of a wild killer whale.  Harris also was Northwest Spokesperson for the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, speaking for the project during Keiko’s last eventful year before the orca’s death in Norway in 2003.  Under his leadership, Orca Conservancy also initiated the first-ever vessel impacts study done in the Salish Sea, which is still being cited by NOAA Fisheries in its orca recovery efforts.

     “I wondered if I would be seen as a bull in a china shop,” Harris continues.  “Maybe I was to some of the operators.  But I knew there were very progressive member companies like Eagle Wing Tours, Five Star Whale Watching and SpringTide Whale Watching & Eco Tours in Victoria, and others like Orcas Island Eclipse Charters, San Juan Cruises, San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours, and of course the Hanke family and Puget Sound Express on the U.S. side.  I appreciated the fact that PWWA stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Orca Conservancy and our fellow litigants on the ESA case, and that they helped us on Springer and other efforts, even when they knew it might impact their operations.  There were operators who understood there had to be changes, and they brought some great ideas to the table.”

     Under Michael’s remarkable five-year tenure, PWWA experienced an extraordinary turnaround in public perception, not just in the Pacific Northwest but throughout the world.  Prior to his coming on board, whale watch boats were widely seen as increasingly unruly, under-regulated, and unresponsive to concerns raised by the research and activist community.  Some vessel impact researchers published papers postulating that whale watch boats were even contributing directly to the demise of the ESA-protected Southern Resident Community of killer whales.  NOAA Fisheries pushed the fleet out to 200 yards in the U.S., and were strongly considering pushing the perimeter out further to 400 yards, with the support of several San Juan Island-based non-profit organizations, some actually contractors with NOAA Fisheries.  Many of those same groups were bending the ear of NOAA to establish a closure zone to commercial whale watching off the west side of San Juan Island, which would’ve also been devastating to the industry.  Opinion of PWWA was going south fast, putting increasing pressure on regulators and political leaders to reign in the fleet.

     The waters had also grown quite choppy with local media outlets.  Seattle-market television news stations, led by Q13 FOX News, were broadcasting investigative reports – even full-length documentaries – heavily criticizing the PWWA fleet and calling for additional federal regulation.  When it came to endangered orcas, the Association was reported as “loving them to death.”  Rather than engaging reporters, PWWA decided to bully them.  The News Director of Q13 told Harris that his station had “stopped talking to the whale watchers” after being threatened with legal action by PWWA’s U.S. President at the time.  That editorial embargo at the station led to numerous one-sided stories about whale watch impacts to Southern Resident orcas.  Other media outlets also said they felt intimidated by certain PWWA members and disinclined to ask for their participation in their reports.  As a filmmaker and 25-year network television journalist in the Seattle market, Harris was hearing of this increasing tension between his friends and colleagues in the reporter corps and the commercial whale watch industry.  He also knew the perils of confrontational media management.

michael-harris-with-capt-dan-wilkIn the Wheelhouse: Michael Harris (left) with Capt. Dan Wilk of Orcas Island Eclipse Charters.

     “Michael’s ability to step in and immediately fix these relationships was remarkable,” remembers Capt. Dan Wilk of Orcas Island Eclipse Charters, one of the first members of the Association when it began in 1991.  “We were getting beat up pretty badly by these news people, and that just fed the anti-whale watch crowd.  Some even said we were out there killing whales by watching them.  We were beginning to be seen as a carnival ride.  But in short order Michael turned that around and soon we were beginning to be seen as marine educators, as a group doing everything we can to reduce our impacts out there on the water, and by taking people out to see these whales creating constituencies for their conservation.  We became the opposite of SeaWorld, a champion of wild whales rather than just another industry exploiting them.  It truly was a sea-change.”   

     PWWA had found itself in the horse latitudes prior to 2011, going nowhere fast.  Prior to engaging Harris, the industry was actually experiencing negative growth – the number of member operators was shrinking, and competition between businesses was intensifying and becoming untenable, leading to frequent squabbles, even on the water, some over VHF in full earshot of anyone listening in.  Rather than working cooperatively, operators were aggressively jockeying for positions to view whales, and disproportionately targeting sensitive Southern Resident orcas to view rather than other wildlife.  Citations and warnings issued to PWWA boats from Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife and NOAA Fisheries were on the uptick, reaching into double digits in some years.  Even one of the fleet’s best and most experienced skippers, Anna Hall of Prince of Whales – now a PhD in cetacean studies – was ticketed and convicted, solely on the evidence of just one still photograph. The Association was in the worst crisis of its 25-year history.

     “The industry was a mess,” remembers Harris. “They were perceived by many as little better than SeaWorld, just another greedy group making money on the backs of endangered whales.  The Association was losing more and more member businesses each year, and those remaining were getting pounded by regulators and enforcement entities.  Owners were having trouble hiring and keeping responsible, experienced skippers because they felt they had to drive scared, worried who was watching them, accused by activists and researchers alike of directly contributing to the demise of the creatures they love so much.  Who’d want a job like that?”

     Beyond the broken relationships in the regional media, PWWA had also led itself into a very strained relationship with the Whale Museum’s Soundwatch Program, which whale watchers actually helped found and fund for its first years.  Members were now battling openly with Soundwatch and its director at the time, Kari Koski, accusing the group of unfairly targeting the commercial whale watchers and advocating for further regulation and closure zones.  PWWA pulled its financial support, and stopped cooperating and collaborating with the group.  Some even pressed the Association to hire an attorney and sue the Whale Museum for defamation.  Relationships with whale advocates throughout BC and Washington State were broken.   

     “Finally PWWA came to me asking for help,” Harris continues. “They said they were looking for good PR, but I immediately told them they’d need much more than that to dig themselves out of this hole – they needed to clean up their act.  I gave them some tough love.  I’m not a PR guy, I’m a journalist – I don’t spin things and put lipstick on pigs.  I report what’s true.  Give me some truth, I told them, and I’ll get that out to the world.”

     And that he did.  After working with PWWA operators to modify and strengthen its guidelines, and with a renewed collective commitment by drivers to adhere to them, Harris helped calm the waters and get the message got out, not just in the region but to the world.  The international media intelligence firm, the Meltwater Group, which has 55 offices over six continents, estimates that the stories Harris has advanced now reaches approximately 2.4 billion people a year, with a huge following particularly in China, Australia, UK, and South Africa.  PWWA is now seen around the planet as a paradigm for sustainable wildlife viewing, and rather than loving the whales to death, perceived as loving the whales to life.  The roughly 400,000 passengers PWWA takes out each year were creating constituencies for conservation – as Jacques Cousteau said, people protect what they love.

The Heat MapMeltwater Group’s global media intelligence meltwater-group-heat-maptracking of original articles generated from PWWA press releases around the world.  They estimate that some 2.4 billion people were
reached last year with stories about Pacific Northwest whales, with particular interest in PWWA’s reports on “the Class of 2015,” nine orca calves born to the Southern Resident Community between December 30, 2014 and January 2016. Darker colors indicate frequency of coverage.

     By all measures, PWWA did clean up its act.  Citations began to plummet year after year – from six tickets issued in 2012 and 2013, to just two issued in 2014 and 2015, then zero last year.  Enforcement agents like Sgt. Russ Mullins of Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife not only credit PWWA for significantly improved compliance, but actually helping to moderate the behavior of recreational boaters around whales.  Moreover, PWWA has assisted in the investigations of WDFW, NOAA and DFO Canada enforcement on a number of cases, including those relating to the flying of hobby drones over whales – an activity, as it is, that has become part of the whale watching experience in California and other parts of the world.  But not in the Pacific Northwest. 

     “The relationship with enforcement agents has never been better, and that’s resulted in very positive outcomes for protecting whales,” Harris explains.  “They’re still the cops and they’ve got a job to do, but we’re all out there with the same objectives, so we’ve learned to work together.  I’ve helped initiate very good discussions over the years with the agencies about the potential of unintended consequences of enforcement.  When I came on board, violations were being interpreted very literally – that is, whenever a whale unexpectedly popped up within 100 meters or 200 yards of a boat, no matter the circumstance, the skipper was cited – even if an orca unexpectedly left a traveling group and headed straight to a boat, which happens a lot since salmon often hide under vessels.  So the consequence of that strict enforcement was that our skippers were driving scared.  He or she kept their engines on and hands on the wheel, always ready to make a quick getaway.  Because of that, PWWA boats were putting sound in the water when they didn’t have to, which we know can cause problems for resident orcas.  With all that underwater noise crews couldn’t drop hydrophones anymore and let their passengers listen in on the whales and learn how important sound is for these animals – and how noise can hurt them.  We lost a lot of opportunities to educate and enlighten passengers.  More spinning propellers also meant an increase in the danger of a prop strike, and more exhaust on the surface.  And again, it was creating a very uneasy experience for PWWA’s drivers and naturalists.  Owners were losing a lot of really good people who know how to operate vessels around wildlife.”

     Knowing that NOAA Fisheries regulation needs to take into proper account the potential impacts it would cause the regional economy, Harris also initiated the first-ever transboundary economic study of the whale watching industry in Washington and British Columbia.  An independent CPA in Victoria volunteered to collect the data from member companies, and Harris enlisted University of Washington economist and professor William Beyers and the former head of U.W.’s Department of Economics, Prof. Gardner Brown, considered the inventor of the field of study of Environmental Economics.  Many longstanding members were pessimistic of the prospects of owners opening up their books to outside parties – one predicting the request would produce only “crickets.” They were wrong.  In the end, 31 of 33 member companies participated, with the only stragglers being out of town when the study was conducted.  The report showed that in 2014 PWWA generated approximately $144 million USD in economic impact to the region, growing at a clip of about 8.3% annually.  Since that study, the Association has grown to 38 companies operating out of 21 different ports, and it’s now estimated to be growing at about 10% a year.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-6-49-51-pmCantech Letter reported that the “big, big” whale watch boom in British Columbia has been a “tourist goldmine this summer,” and has contributed to a 12% increase in BC tourism in the last year.

     Under Harris’s tenure, PWWA also stepped up its direct support and collaboration with research organizations like Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, WA and OrcaLab in BC.  The Association has even kept whales from being blown up.  In an extraordinary initiative, Harris and Capt. Dan Kukat of SpringTide firmed up PWWA’s relationship with the Canadian military on Vancouver Island, a relationship that on a number of occasions allowed Kukat to directly alert personnel and help them to stand down from exercises like underwater detonations when whales were approaching. 

      After halting an underwater detonation in July 2014 when notified of approaching Southern Resident orcas, Canadian Forces Base Commander Capt. Luc Cassivi said that notifications from whale-watching operations “are invaluable for helping us protect local wildlife. Working with organizations such as the Pacific Whale Watch Association in situations such as these is an excellent example of how we are achieving this goal.” (“Wandering Whales Force Pause in Explosives Exercise,” Victoria Times Colonist, July 3, 2014.)

     And together with progressive companies like Eagle Wing Tours, Harris and PWWA helped nurture positive relationships with First Nations bands in BC and the treaty tribes of Washington State, including standing with Native people and successfully opposing the siting of a massive, poorly planned pilot tidal turbine project in Admiralty Inlet, WA, and a toxins recycling plant slated to be built on the banks of the Fraser River, both of which were direct threats to subsistence fishing in their usual and accustomed places (U&As), and to endangered orcas.

     PWWA even got into the rock ‘n roll biz – in 2014, Harris produced “Kiss the Sky! The Orca Freedom Concert,” working with Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project on an Earth Day show benefitting wild orca research and advocacy.  The sold-out concert, headlined by Harris’ friends Ann and Nancy Wilson and Heart, also featured Heart’s fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Graham Nash and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and raised some $50,000 USD for its beneficiaries, including the Center for Whale Research.  The show, co-sponsored by PWWA and Guitar Center, also included the first-ever performance by Heart of “Baby Wild,” a song the Wilson sisters wrote for Harris for his 1999 Emmy Award-winning syndicated youth special. 


Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Joan Jett, Ann and Nancy Wilson, and Graham Nash with PWWA Executive Director Michael Harris at “Kiss the Sky! The Orca Freedom Concert” in Seattle, Earth Day 2014.

     PWWA also recognized the importance of not disseminating its real-time whale sightings to the general public.  It was clear that private boaters were eavesdropping on the fleet’s VHF communications for reports, and then using those reports to find and often harass whales.  This is by all accounts the biggest concern when it comes to vessel impacts, the surge of recreational boaters on whales.  Under Harris’ tenure, operators went to the expense of acquiring private trunk radios to share sightings with one another, as well as to protect those real-time reports through a private Facebook page.  The Association wrote a strict Code of Conduct that everyone in the PWWA Sighting Network signs, and those who violate that and disseminate real-time sightings outside PWWA are removed. 

     Social media sightings groups like Orca Network continue to find ways around these protective measures to access and broadcast the real-time whereabouts of whales to its donors – lately through the online shadowing of PWWA boats via the AIS devices the larger whale watch vessels are now required by law to have – but overall the Association has been able to ensure that its real-time sightings are only made available to those who need them, like researchers and the military.  And the highly credible sightings data that it generates in the roughly 14,000 trips it conducts each year is compiled and output to research groups and NOAA Fisheries.  PWWA is now one of the most important contributors in this region to conservation science, particularly as it regards the Southern Resident orcas.       

     “I’ve had a wonderful five years as Executive Director of PWWA and I think we’ve come a long, long way,” Harris concludes.  “But I can’t say I’m leaving this gig without concerns.  I was surprised to hear that I may be the last to fill this position.  I’m very disappointed that the current US and BC President of PWWA feel it’s not important to have an Executive Director position anymore, that independent third-party consultant, that den mother, to help herd these cats and keep them thinking collectively.  What I’ve been able to do is awfully tough for one competing business to do with another, and in fact that’s what helped get PWWA into the mess it was in before I came on board.  I’m concerned about seeing these bigger companies asserting undue influence on the smaller members, many of whom are quite progressive and previously very active in some of the Association efforts.  And I’m worried that some of PWWA’s newest members, especially on San Juan Island, are getting too cozy with professional orca activists and social media campers – the ‘Orca Club,’ as I call them, many of them quite myopic about removing the Snake River dams as the only way to save the Southern Residents.  It’s not the only way.  It’s certainly not the quickest way.”

     NOAA Fisheries agrees.  In its April 11th report, “Southern Resident Killer Whales and Snake River Dams,” agency scientists concluded that Southern Resident recovery “will require progress on many fronts, from effective management of boat traffic near the whales to improvements in their primary prey, salmon. Since they feed on many different salmon stocks at different times, though, no one salmon recovery action on a single river, such as breaching dams on the Snake, would itself bring about the recovery of Southern Resident killer whales.”

     In a recent guest column (“Breaching Dams Won’t Help Orcas,” Tri-City Herald, November 27, 2016), 31-year Pasco City Planner Dave McDonald, MSc. writes that “activists on the Seattle waterfront said the best way to save the orcas is to restore the salmon runs that provide their food – mostly by removing the lower Snake River dams. That is where the head scratching began.”

     In an opinion shared by many orca advocates outside of the San Juan Islands – and certainly a majority of residents in eastern Washington State – McDonald continues that “breaching dams on a river system that does not connect to the main habitat of the whales is pointless. The geography doesn’t work and the science is questionable. The activists said nothing about the overwater structures, seawalls, bank armoring, bulkheads, breakwaters and filled estuaries that have decimated the nearshore ecosystem around Puget Sound.”

     McDonald suggests devoting our “limited resources” to “improving conditions in the Salish Sea, the home of the orcas.  The Snake River dams are just a distraction from what needs to be done.”

     Washington’s Congressional delegation is also split on the question.  It’s even unclear whether the State’s two Democratic U.S. Senators agree on the matter – and if they don’t see eye-to-eye, it’s unlikely President Barack Obama will extend himself to issue an Executive Order to bring the dams down, especially with other pressing matters and interests hoping for Executive Orders elsewhere.  Prospects are even dimmer when considering that a Donald Trump Administration would certainly reverse the Order.  And yet in its Seattle press conference announcing the deaths of J28 and J54, the Center for Whale Research and Orca Network issued as its only citizen call to action (other than to make donations to their organizations) that people contact the Obama Administration and demand an Executive Order on the Snake River dams.  That likely would be a wild goose chase.  Last month the Administration announced a groundbreaking partnership with Washington’s tribes, leveraging their treaty fishing rights to restore salmon habitat in Orca Country.  The White House described the initiative as a “gift to Puget Sound.”  In other words, Snake River folks, the President was saying he already gave at the office. 

     The Center for Whale Research and Orca Network never mentioned the federal/tribal initiative on salmon habitat restoration in their Seattle press conference. 

     When research runs head-on into activism, neither survives the impact.  And airbags here don’t help.  The Center for Whale Research has 40 years of legacy research in its wake, without which Orca Conservancy and its fellow petitioners and litigants would’ve never been able to make the successful case to list the Southern Resident orcas under ESA.  But that legacy should make it transcendent over the petty squabbles and territoriality that has defined the Orca Club and rendered it so famously ineffectual.  inslee-encounters-orca-activists_journal-of-the-san-juansIcons like Ken Balcomb should have a place at the table when discussing the recovery of the population he’s devoted his career to track and protect.  Last summer, a “meeting” about the Snake River dams was announced between Deborah Giles, PhD., the Center’s new Research Director and Project Manager, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (above left / “Gov. Inslee Meets With Orca Advocates on Top of Mt. Grant,” The Journal of the San Juans, September 7, 2016).  In fact, what happened was more like an ambush – the Governor was visiting Orcas Island when he was confronted by Dr. Giles and activists waving placards.  This isn’t how the Center for Whale Research should be meeting with elected officials, particularly one who has demonstrated a willingness to do whatever it takes to recover salmon and orca recovery in his State.  The activists were barking up the wrong tree – and legacy research institutions shouldn’t be barking in the first place. 

michael-harris-hosting-giants-of-the-pacific-northwestMichael Harris hosting the prime time KOMO 4 special, “GIANTS of the Pacific Northwest,” which earned him a nomination for an Emmy Award as “Outstanding Host/Moderator.”

     When it comes to orca recovery, Harris leaves PWWA with one last piece of advice.

     “We have to have the audacity of hope if we’re going to save the Southern Residents,” Harris says. “We need to enlist the interest and support of people well outside the Orca Club, far, far away from the maddening crowds that we have here in this echo chamber.  And we don’t do that by telling the world that this population is doomed to extinction.  Firefighters don’t rush to save a building that’s already burned down.  I’m seeing this happen far too much – even to the point where Orca Network and the Center for Whale Research jointly announced the death of a living orca calf at a big press conference in Seattle, simply because the whale didn’t die in time for the presser.  I’ve never seen a wildlife population census do something like that. And according to the Center, J28 died of starvation – and yet, no mention was ever made of the fact that J28 had a stillborn calf and then became pregnant again with J54 within six months, undoubtedly contributing to a compromised condition that led to her death.  It felt like facts were being fitted to a narrative, just so they could pull the fire alarm and push this agenda on the Snake River dams and, as it turned out, simultaneously pitch the media and public to donate to their organizations.  I find that irresponsible.  But mostly, I find it unhelpful.  Breaching dams is an important part of restoring habitat and salmon runs and recovering the Southern Resident orcas, but there are faster, better ways to do that.”

     Getting scientists, researchers and advocates on the same page will be critical to orca recovery.  Right now, they’re not.  The Center for Whale Research’s grim assessment on the health and prospects of the Southern Resident Community runs counter to that of renowned orca scientists like Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, Director of Cetacean Research at the Vancouver Aquarium, and Dr. John Ford of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 

     In a recent article (Orca Population at Risk, Researcher Says, The Canadian Press, November 13, 2016), Dr. Lennard, whose team has been conducting ground-breaking photogrammetry research (drones) of the population, said recent aerial photos they’ve been collecting on the population provide accurate information on the orcas’ body condition and don’t show the appearance of starving whales, despite a poor Chinook run this year.  He says images captured this September found that although the orcas were thinner compared with photos from September 2015, with the exception of the pregnancy-stressed J28, the rest of the whales appeared to be in generally good condition.

     “Most of them are not emaciated by any means,” Dr. Barrett-Lennard explained.  “(J28) was the outlier, she was the unusual one.”

     Dr. Ford went even further in downplaying the plight of the Southern Residents. While the population of the Southern Residents is down, he conceded, “they aren’t in crisis yet” with their numbers stronger than they were in the 1970s when they dwindled to only 71 orcas. 

     The science community is also in disagreement over whether more Chinook salmon alone would necessarily save the Southern Resident orcas.  Dr. Andrew Trites, head of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, led a panel of seven NOAA and DFO scientists studying the correlation between Chinook salmon abundance and Southern Residents.  The joint report concluded that “the Panel believes considerable caution is warranted in interpreting the correlative results as confirming a linear causal relationship between Chinook salmon abundance and SRKW (Southern Resident killer whales) vital rates.”  In other words, there’s truth to the old adage, “no fish, no blackfish,” but does “fish” have to mean “Chinook”?  According to the scientists, maybe not.

     Unfortunately, this sometimes-uncivil difference of opinion and competing agendas have led to redundant research and duplicated efforts.  The Center for Whale Research launched a “GoFundMe” campaign with Exeter University – partnering with a behavioral ecologist whose resume includes studies on the welfare and productivity of dairy cattle and on sexual conflict in guppies – to fund a photogrammetry project of their own.  They don’t appear to have sought a partnership or to pool resources with Dr. Barrett-Lennard and his colleague John Durban, a former associate of the Center, perhaps in part because of the Center’s and Orca Network’s conspicuous disdain of Vancouver Aquarium and its history of displaying captive whales and dolphins.  Drones may now fly over endangered orcas when they don’t need to, and precious money spent on work that’s already being done.  Meanwhile, the Center admits it has had difficulty fulfilling its federally contracted duties on Orca Survey, primarily because of the infrequency now of large groups of Southern Residents in their primary study area, and the range limitations of its small boat-based photo ID methodology.  But when it came to passing the donation hat to the public, the Center didn’t hesitate to announce a current count of 80 individuals in the population – when in fact they knew there were 81 still out there.

     “Ken Balcomb and I have been friends for almost 30 years and he’s been in at least a half-dozen of my documentaries,” Harris explained, “and so I’ve always told him what I think and trusted that he received that with the affection and respect it’s always carried.  But I’m really concerned about the Center and this activist course they’ve charted.  They’re not just another NGO out there, they’re not PETA.  They’ve got to stay above all this nonsense and take care of the science, and leave the placards to the gadflies.  Like me, Ken’s always spoke truth to power, no matter the cost – in his case, I’m sure that’s cost the Center some federal grants.  But now he’s speaking his truth to everyone out there, including his esteemed colleagues in the research community, accusing them of using ‘barbaric’ methods to track whales, or just not working with some of them because they happen to be affiliated with a captive facility.  I never imagined that his peers, some who’ve been studying these orcas for as long as he has, would ever roll their eyes and say, ‘well, there goes Ken again.’  But many do now, and that’s really unfortunate.”

     “But I’m not giving up on the Center,” Harris concludes.  “And even if they give up on saving this population of orcas, I’m not going to.  I don’t think the whale watchers are, either.  It’s that audacity of hope again.  We put out a PWWA press release last month, sharing 44 recent photos of what we call ‘the Class of 2015,’ the eight calves born to this community between December 30, 2014 and January 2016.  All showed the calves to be apparently active and thriving – and even short of appearances, certainly alive.  That meant that eight of the 10 known babies born last year have survived, when we know that 50% of all wild orcas don’t make it through their first year.  Let alone in a critically endangered, contaminated, prey-depleted population. These calves have beaten the odds – even if J54 doesn’t make it.  Once again, the Southern Residents have proven themselves to be survivors.  As I said, call me the eternal optimist, but these whales have been plying these waters for over 10,000 years and I feel like they’ll be here for another 10,000, at least.”

     The whale watch industry isn’t going away anytime soon, either.  In fact, Harris probably helped ensure the long-term viability of the industry by his global media on thehumpback-comeback_canadian-press “Humpback Comeback,” a term he actually coined, the resurgence of the recently delisted north Pacific humpback population to the Salish Sea after being extirpated here a half-century ago by commercial whaling.  Meltwater Group reported that a PWWA release on humpbacks in August was seen by about 187 million people in the first 48 hours after it went out.  Humpback whale watching now makes up a majority of the 14,000 trips conducted each year by PWWA operators.  It also has taken the public and regulatory pressure off the industry, and by spreading the fleet substantially across its 21 different ports in WA and BC has taken the pressure off the Southern Resident orcas. 

     Through its extensive media efforts in the last few years, PWWA has also built a significant and profitable gray whale watching industry in mid-Puget Sound each spring – the “Saratoga Grays,” as the Association coined them, about a dozen migratory individuals who regularly come to the region between February and May to feed on ghost shrimp.  Companies like Island Adventures now run full boats out of Everett, WA, sometimes two tours a day.  PWWA has also reported record sightings of transient or Bigg’s killer whales, now topping 300 individuals and unlike their resident counterparts appear to be thriving – and putting on spectacular shows for passengers.  Even fin whales, not seen in Puget Sound since 1930, have resurfaced in these waters in the last two years, providing operators an opportunity to introduce whale watchers to the second-largest creature ever on the planet Earth.

     The Salish Sea will always be Southern Resident Orca Country – but these days PWWA operators tour the American Serengeti, a wildlife kingdom with as many charismatic marine species as Kenya has terrestrially.  Rather than converging on critically endangered orcas, the commercial whale watch fleet is now able to spread out over the entire region, introducing its passengers to Saratoga grays and comeback humpbacks – poster children of species recovery – as well as thriving Bigg’s killer whales, foraging fin whales, minke whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, even short-beaked common dolphins this past summer, an extremely rare encounter. 

     Perhaps for the first time in its 25-year history – and certainly in the last five years – PWWA is truly a sustainable industry, unquestionably creating more good than harm, part of the solution, not the problem.  And its global voice is as strong as ever, louder than a humpback trumpet.  People around the planet care about what we see here, and literally billions now follow the trials and tribulations of Southern Resident orcas and the Class of 2015.  The world is invested in the recovery of this population, and that’s a very good thing. 

     But improvements must still be made, particularly as regards mitigating and even eliminating potential acoustic threats to resident orcas, and that has to be driven by emerging science.  In a meeting with NOAA Fisheries leadership three years ago at their Seattle offices, PWWA went “all in” on digital acoustic recording tags, or “D-Tags,” which are temporally attached to orcas with suction cups and consist of a number of different sensors that record sound, pitch, roll, heading, and depth.  The tag was developed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution specifically to monitor the behavior of marine mammals and their response to sound continuously throughout the dive cycle.  It was the clear science on vessel impacts – including whale watch vessels – that for years PWWA had been pushing for to inform the fleet on its operations.  If the D-Tags said its boats were altering the behavior of Southern Resident orcas, PWWA would do whatever it takes to help the whales. 

     After at least 29 D-Tag deployments NOAA finally got around to analyzing the data last year.  In a PLOS One research article (The Relationship between Vessel Traffic and Noise Levels Received by Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) / Juliana Houghton, Marla M. Holt, Deborah A. Giles, M. Bradley Hanson, Candice K. Emmons, Jeffrey T. Hogan, Trevor A. Branch, Glenn R. VanBlaricom, PLOS One, December 2, 2015), University of Washington student and NOAA contractor Juliana Houghton and her co-authors identified acoustic impacts as very real to resident orcas, and concluded that “that vessel speed is the most important predictor of noise levels received by whales in this study.  Thus, measures that reduce vessel speed in the vicinity of killer whales would reduce noise exposure in this population.” 

     As it was, PWWA was way ahead on that one – the Association already knew it could vastly improve the soundscape for foraging orcas by slowing down its approaches and departures, and even before the Houghton paper codified that into its guidelines and culture of operations.  One of the co-authors of the paper called PWWA to say that the conclusion “validates everything you’re doing now” on approaches and departures.  The fleet will continue to watch its speed, and again look for more opportunities to shut down engines while in the company of whales.  The Association will also keep urging NOAA to spend less time tagging whales and more time analyzing the copious data it already has.

     Beyond reducing its footprint, PWWA is also taking some very positive steps forward.  orca-friendly-labelThis summer the Association teamed up with Ace Hardware stores in introducing PWWA-approved “Orca Friendly Products.”  The idea came from San Juan Island whale watch operator Capt. Hobbes Buchanan, who together with Harris brought it to fruition, launching the label in stores last August in Friday Harbor and Anacortes, WA.  The goal is to spread the idea throughout the 4,700-plus independently owned and operated Ace Hardware stores in North America.  Now, at least in Orca Country, Ace is the place for… saving whales.

     PWWA has also proven time and time again that having a fleet of emergency-trained crews out there can save lives.  In the last three years whale watch vessels have been involved in nine rescues – four in the last year alone – from pulling a young couple and their dog off a sinking, burning sailboat near Galiano Island, BC, to plucking toppled, hypothermic kayakers out of frigid Haro Strait.  PWWA boats have also come to the aid of disabled vessels, in some cases possibly averting an oil spill in Orca Country.  And the industry continues to reach out and offer its assistance to both NOAA Fisheries and DFO Canada in their oil spill prevention and response efforts – particularly important now with the recent approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which will result in a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic through the San Juan Islands.  Whale watch operators understand that if a spill ever happens, they may very well be the first line of defense between oil and whales.

     “It’s a good thing we’re out there,” Harris says.  “We’re not just watching whales, we’re watching out for everyone.  I’m really proud that we’ve been able to instill that culture among the fleet – not just to make sure crews have the emergency training to respond, but the willingness and sense of duty to do it.  That’s extremely cool.”

     Within a week of word getting out that Harris would be stepping down as Executive Director of PWWA, the non-profit group Orca Relief – long a thorn in the foot of the whale watch industry – submitted their latest petition to NOAA Fisheries calling for a “Whale Protection Zone” off most of the west side of San Juan Island.  It was the first real action on the controversial proposal in several years, and this variation included a new, formidable partner – the Center for Biological Diversity, attorneys on the historic U.S. District Court case that won the Southern Resident orcas their first-ever protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Through an intermediary Orca Relief requested a meeting with Harris to discuss the proposal – and perhaps extend an olive branch.

     “It was a very productive meeting, the kind of discussions we should all be having about these whales,” remembered Harris.  “I found (Orca Relief’s) Scott West to be knowledgeable, committed and quite understanding of the complications of establishing closure zones anywhere in the Salish Sea.  I hope I helped his group get an even better understanding of what it would take to get the major stakeholders on board, from the commercial whale watchers to fishers to the treaty tribes.  Their proposal has been billed as something quick and easy, but it would be far from that. However, I think everyone believes that marine protected areas (MPAs) can work, if they’re done right.  We have a great example up north with Robson Bight Ecological Reserve in Johnstone Strait, BC, and it’s unquestionably been helpful to the Northern Resident orcas.  But that effort took a lot of heavy lifting back in the ‘80s by people like Jim Borrowman – the first whale watch operator up there – and Dr. Paul Spong of OrcaLab, and no small bit of horse trading, and even now it’s not perfect.” 

     “What we need in the Salish Sea isn’t just an MPA site chosen for optics, to assuage wealthy donors on San Juan Island who don’t like to look out their living room windows and see whale watch boats,” Harris continues.  “The west side of San Juan Island is important, but we need to also look at several other MPA sites throughout the Salish Sea, protecting a lot more than just whales, from worms and sand lance on up to the megafauna.  And some are already coming together, like the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, which will protect among other things a critical herring spawning area – salmon eat herring, whales eat salmon.”

     “Most importantly, nothing can happen without the tribes,” Harris adds.  “They are by law co-managers of these fisheries, and they have a promise from this government to be able to fish in their U&As as long as the rivers run, as they have for time immemorial.  They’re behind the Cherry Point MPA, and I’m confident they’ll be supportive of others – but telling the tribes they can’t fish is a non-starter.  White folks forget that this is what started the Fish Wars in the ‘60s and ‘70s, led by leaders like the late Billy Frank Jr., my mentor.  Billy and his warriors risked their lives and liberty to win that battle, leading to the Boldt Decision in 1974, which was upheld in 1979 in the U.S. Supreme Court.  But by then much of the damage to these runs had already been done by non-Native people.  We have to understand that since 1985 the tribes have been forced to reduce salmon harvests by 80%.  That’s really impacted their lives and their culture.  And yet when considering tribal-led projects like the removal of the Elwha Dams and the restoration of the Nisqually Delta, they’re doing more now to restore fisheries than anyone out there.  They’re putting a lot more fish in the water than they’re taking out.  People love orcas in Indian Country as much as we do, but their love and concern for these whales also involves some deep empathy that we don’t have as non-Natives – like orcas, they need salmon to survive.  After all, they are the Salmon People. If they’re on board, we’ll find a way to bring back the Killer Whale People.” 

     What the future holds for whales and whale watching is uncertain, but there’s no doubt that Harris leaves the Pacific Whale Watch Association with a fair wind and a following sea.

Michael Harris is a Seattle-based Producer, Photojournalist and Wildlife Specialist for ABC News and an 11-time Emmy Award-winning documentarian. For the last five years he also has served as a consultant and Executive Director of Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), representing 37 operators in Washington and British Columbia, as well as Board Member and Past President of the all-volunteer non-profit Orca Conservancy, founder of the Free Lolita campaign and a petitioner and later successful litigant in the historic U.S. District Court case to list the Southern Resident Community of killer whales under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).  In 2002, under Michael’s leadership and in partnership with Earth Island Institute and the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, Orca Conservancy initiated, advocated for, helped raised all the necessary funding and participated directly in the monitoring, intervention and translocation of the orphaned juvenile Northern Resident Community orca A73, or “Springer,” which would become the first-ever successful rescue and repatriation of a wild killer whale.  In 2013, the effort would prove to be even more successful than the team imagined – researchers spotted Springer off Vancouver Island, BC with her first calf, named “Spirit.”  As of summer 2016, OrcaLab on Hanson Island, BC reported that Springer and Spirit continue to thrive as contributing members of the population, listed as “Threatened” under the Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA).


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