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Compromise on orca protection removes whale watching moratorium, garners criticism

Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
In this July 31, 2015 file photo, an orca swims past a recreational boat sailing just offshore in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands, Wash.

A de facto ban on whale watching boats that would have required them to stay 650 yards away from endangered Puget Sound orcas for three to five years has been stripped from revised legislation. The compromise goes against a recommendation from Gov. Jay Inslee’s Orca Recovery Task Force.

The task force noted that Southern Residents are starving and suffer from lack of their preferred prey. Many people say the noise and disturbance from the clusters of boats that routinely gather around them interfere with their ability to echolocate and find scarce Chinook salmon.

The compromise legislation omits the de facto moratorium detailed in prior bills, but increases the distance all boats must keep from the endangered whales from 200 to 300 yards. It also creates a go-slow zone and a new licensing system under which the state Department of Fish and Wildlife can set conditions to limit things such as boat numbers or time spent with the whales.

That’s not enough for some advocates, including Janet Thomas, executive director of the Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance. She told lawmakers the compromise makes a “mockery” of what the task force recommended.

“This bill that you are now being presented with protects the whale watching industry more than it protects the Southern Resident orca whales,” she said.

Others told members of the House Appropriations Committee that the current proposal doesn’t do enough to help the starving orcas get the peace and quiet they need to find their food. Tim Ragen, former executive director of the United States Marine Mammal Commission, urged them to reinstate measures to better protect the dwindling numbers of Southern Residents.

“The weaker the bill that you put forward, the longer it will take to recover this population, the more expensive it will be to recover the population and the more likely it will be that you will fail,” he said.

Representatives of Fish and Wildlife, the Washington Environmental Council and the Pacific Whale Watch Association testified in favor of the changes.

The whale watch association has argued that keeping them more than six football fields away from the endangered orcas would have unintended consequences, because whale watch companies demonstrate best practices on the water and help everyone follow the rules.

Another hearing on the legislation takes place Wednesday afternoon in the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

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