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New whale-watch licensing system will reduce noise, disturbance of endangered orcas

In this July 31, 2015 photo, one orca whale swims along as another leaps out of the water near a whale watching boat whose passengers happen to be looking the other way in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands, Wash.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
In this July 31, 2015 photo, one orca whale swims along as another leaps out of the water near a whale watching boat whose passengers happen to be looking the other way in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands, Wash.

Update, Dec. 18, 2020: State officials have approved new rules that limit whale watch boats to a three-month season for viewing Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales. They will only be allowed from July through September.

The boats may only be near the endangered orcas twice a day -- two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. And only three boats at a time near a group of the southern residents.

Donna Sandstrom is with the nonprofit Whale Trail and sees the rules as a triumph.

“I think momentum is shifting toward quieting the seas for the whales. ... I think the commissioners understand that just the way the public does," Sandstrom said. "Everybody knows how fragile this population is.”

Whale-watch operators argued for more time with the whales, saying their presence helps protect them from other marine traffic.

But Julie Watson with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife says the state needs more evidence to evaluate that claim. The rules include mandatory tracking of the whale watch boats.

"And we can see what the differences are when commercial vessels are present or not, and how other boats react," Watson said.

The rules, which can be viewed here, take effect Jan. 23, 2021.

Clarification, Dec. 21, 2020: this update has been revised to reflect the start date of the new rules, which is on Jan. 23. WDFW says licenses will be required for commercial whale watching operations starting March 1, and reporting requirements will go into effect May 1, 2021.

Original story: Despite the happy news that Puget Sound’s Southern Resident killer whales welcomed two new babies to the J-pod last month, their population remains at risk, with just 74 left in the wild.

A new licensing requirement for commercial whale watch boats isexpected to start next year.  It aims to reduce noise and other stress that could be impacting them, by regulating the numbers of boats allowed in proximity of the Southern Residents as well as when and how long the whales can be watched.

“It's really important that they have less underwater noise so that they can find food,” said Julie Watson, the agency’s killer whale policy lead. “We're finding that they aren't getting enough of their favorite prey, chinook salmon. And so if we make it quieter, we're making it more likely that they have the right conditions to thrive in the Salish Sea and Puget Sound.”

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is taking comments this week on a draft rule that would limit whale watch boats to just four hours a day with the Southern Residents, and only for three months of the year.

“So that means in the current draft, you could have up to three boats at a time with any one group of Southern Resident killer whales during the hours of 11 to 1 or 3 to 5 during the months of July through September,” Watson said. “And then otherwise we'd be just completely kind of avoiding commercial viewing those Southern Resident killer whales and giving them that space."

They’re also considering some exclusion areas that would remain off limits year-round, such as the west side of San Juan Island, which is currently a voluntary no-go zone. Another possibility is prohibiting viewing of calves that are younger than a year old or other vulnerable orcas, such as the injured or sick.

Violators of the new restrictions would face a $500 fine per incident.

We think those are all really important,” said Donna Sandstrom, executive director of The Whale Trail, a nonprofit that advocates for land-based whale watching. She served on Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca recovery task force, which recommended a licensing system. “And if whale watching is going to be allowed at all, we really like that the whales get more of their time to themselves, compared to the 12 hours a day that they experience whale watching now.”  

Sandstrom has joined with several other groups on a campaign asking all boaters to voluntarily stay 1,000 yards away from the endangered orcas in the Salish Sea, year-round.

She also points out that Canada recently adoptedan interim order requiring all boats to stay 400 meters away from the Southern Residents, effectively suspending whale watchingactivities centered on them.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but it has been involved in developing the rules.

Whale watch operators have indicated that they currently spend only about 10 percent of their time with Southern Residents — more frequently seeing transient orcas, humpbacks and minke whales or other marine mammals.

But the licensing system does come with new costs, including annual fees and required tracking technology. The Department of Fish and Wildlife says it wants to phase this in, and seek grants to subsidize those costs and reduce any economic burden, especially given the financial realities of the pandemic.

This week’s virtual public feedback sessions on the draft rules take place Wednesday at 1 p.m. and Thursday at 9 a.m.  A formal public comment period goes from Oct. 21-Nov. 13, and there is an opportunity to give public comment during the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s meeting on Dec. 4-5.

The commission is scheduled to make its decision Dec. 18 and the new licensing system could take effect in early 2021.

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