Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Final Orca Recovery Recommendations Include Temporary Whale Watching Ban

Elaine Thompson / File
AP Photo
n this July 31, 2015, file photo, an orca whale breaches in view of Mount Baker, some 60 miles distant, in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands, Wash.

Gov. Jay Inslee receiveda final report and recommendationsfrom the Orca Recovery Task Force he appointed in May. The group suggests 36 action items to keep the Southern Resident killer whales from going extinct. Among the most controversial is a temporary ban on whale watching of the endangered orcas, for three to five years.

Supporters of the ban say it’s one of the most immediate ways to help endangered orcas, because noise from boats makes it harder for them to find the rare Chinook salmon they feed on. The orcas are suffering from lack of food. There’s also evidence the malnourishment is causing a high rate of miscarriages. And three of the endangered whales — one each in the J, K and L pods — are currently pregnant.

Donna Sandstrom is founder and director of the nonprofit Whale Trail, which encourages people to watch orcas from the shore. She served on the state's task force.

“We need to do things right now that create the optimal conditions for those females to have successful births and for calves to survive," Sandstrom said. "Turning down the noise is the thing we can do right now, that will have a big impact.” 

The Pacific Whale Watch Association opposes the ban. They say slowing boat speeds near the endangered orcas cuts out most of the noise. And they say there could be unintended consequences if they are no longer able to be out on the water modeling good behavior and helping enforce best practices for recreational boaters or newcomers to the industry. They also point out that many operators collect data and support good science by constantly being on the lookout for the beloved endangered species.

And they want to make sure the public knows that the proposed ban would only apply to viewing of Southern Resident orcas. The whale watch association says there are plenty of other whales to see in Puget Sound – and in fact many other populations are booming right now. So, this would only affect about 15 percent of their business.

More commonly sighted populations include the abundant Transient (aka Bigg’s) killer whales, large numbers of Minke whales, Gray whales, Humpback whales and even Harbour porpoises.

The task force's goals for orca recovery match already established federal goals: an annual growth rate of more than 2 percent, which would chart the course for at least 10 new orcas joining the current population of 74 in the next 10 years.

Ten of the 36 recommendations proposed will require legislative action from lawmakers in Olympia, including the proposed ban on whale watching.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to