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Whale watch operators insist their presence helps protect southern resident orcas

In this photo taken July 31, 2015, passengers aboard a commercial boat watch orca whales swim past in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands, Wash.
Elaine Thompson
Associated Press
In this photo taken July 31, 2015, passengers aboard a commercial boat watch orca whales swim past in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands, Wash

Operators of commercial whale-watching vessels are pushing back against proposed new regulations from the state. The Department of Fish and Wildlife is implementinga mandatory licensing system for the vessels, after the Washington Legislature passed a directive last year that also instructed the department to develop rules for viewing endangered southern resident killer whales.

Both requirements stem from recommendations issued by Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca recovery task force. The top two recommendations from Fish and Wildlife would limit time spent near endangered southern resident orcas to only certain months, days and hours and provide entire months when they would be off limits.This is meant to protect the orcas from disturbances that interfere with their ability to hunt, communicate and reproduce. The whales navigate by echolocation, amplifying the impact acoustic disturbances have on them.

Commercial whale-watch operators say they accept the need for the new licensing system, to keep better track of who is in the industry and spending time near the whales. But they insist they play a "sentinel role" on the water. They’re in the business of being the first to know where the wildlife is, they say, and it’s in their interest to do everything they can to protect it. And they believe their presence helps alert and educate other boats.

“It has an effect. It slows boats down. It causes boats to divert. They know that something's happening in the water when they see a whale-watch boat there,” said Pete Hanke, operator of Puget Sound Express, during a Senate committee meeting Wednesday.

He told legislators and members of the WDFW Commission that whale-watching vessels are a small fraction of the traffic, and the proposal to have companies like his stay away from the whales will leave them at the mercy of all the others on the water.  

“What they're actually going to do is allow other boaters to inadvertently, for the most part, run right over the top of the southern resident killer whales.” he said.

A recent study shows that reducing the speed of vessels near the whales matters more than how close they get.

Jeff Friedman, the head of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, added that right now, for example, U.S. and Canadian military personnel are conducting two weeks of tactical warfare training — known asthe Trident Fury 20 — in the Salish Sea.

“And under the proposed rules, this would be a time when we would be prohibited from viewing southern residents, and we would be unable to warn military vessels in training to their location,” Friedman said. 

But agency representatives say they have heard from equal numbers of people who feel the commercial whale watch boats act as magnets, not sentinels — attracting scores of boats and never giving the endangered orcas a break. Some are still advocating for a total ban or moratorium on watching the southern resident orcasand point out that just over the border to the north, that is the regulation that whale-watch boats in British Columbia are now following.

The agency says it will need more science to back up the claim from whale-watch operators that they play the sentinel role; the Pacific Whale Watch Association says in just three months of tracking, from July to September this year, they logged 293 actions that benefited the endangered whales. The agency suggests they can bring more complete data two years after the new rules take effect, when they will be up for renewal.

The final hearing on the proposed rules takes place during the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting Friday.  The Department of Fish and Wildlife is accepting public comments on the rules through 5 p.m. Saturday. The commission will make a decision in roughly two weeks.

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