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Whale watch companies say licensing system should be voluntary because of COVID-19

Patrons watch transient orcas on a 12-passenger Maya's Legacy Whale Watching boat, after departing from Friday Harbor.
Parker Miles Blohm
Patrons watch transient orcas on a 12-passenger Maya's Legacy Whale Watching boat, after departing from Friday Harbor.

New licensing requirements for whale watch boats working in Washington waterstake effect March 1. They’re the result of years of work, both from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and from the governor’s southern resident killer whale task force, which recommended the implementation of a licensing system.

But this week, state lawmakers began considering changes that would weaken those rules.

A Senate bill that would make the licensing optional got a public hearing Thursday before the Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee.

The legislation would require licensing only of whale watch boats that plan to spend time viewing the southern resident orcas – a species that has been scarce in recent years because of a declining population and the dwindling numbers of Chinook salmon that are its primary source of food.

The proposal would allow companies to opt in. Other whale watch operators could opt out, by pledging to avoid the endangered species and instead focus on other marine wildlife.

Jeff Friedman is the U.S. president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, who also owns and operates Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. He says the licensing will cost thousands of dollars annually, at a time when the industry is suffering because of COVID-19. He says those concerns were voiced during discussions of the new regulations last year, but these “devastating impacts” were not truly acknowledged.

“Loss of revenue, loss of jobs, business closures – and, as a key part of the state tourism sector, we're going to continue to feel those in 2021,” he said, adding that the continued closure of the border to Canada and the restrictions on domestic and international travel are decimating their industry.

But opponents testified that this bill would effectively undo several years’ worth of work to save a species that is on the brink of extinction.

Nora Nickum, a policy manager with the Seattle Aquarium, told lawmakers they should reject this change. She called it “a blunt instrument.”

It would be hard for enforcement officers to know if an operator they saw near southern residents was required to get a license, because it would depend on the operators’ intent, which is very hard to prove,” she said, adding that the requested changes are premature.

“It'll mean we can't learn from those rules through the mandated adaptive management process. And it will increase pressure on the orcas in their time of crisis.”

The new rules include a requirement for tracking equipment that will provide data on the status of the whales. And if an operator is caught watching southern residents without a license, the violation is a misdemeanor on the first offense. It escalates to gross misdemeanor on the second offense if it happens within one year of the date of prior conviction.

Shoreline Mayor Will Hall represented local government on the orca recovery task force. He began his testimony describing how much his constituents care about this species.

I have a stack of letters from schoolchildren asking us to save the whales,” he said. “People in my city love orcas so much that they hired artists to decorate 22 model orcas and placed them all over town.”

He says they expect elected officials to take meaningful action.

“It may sound simple to only regulate people who caused problems, but that would be like only requiring car insurance or driver's licenses for people who drive dangerously,” Hall said.

Critics of the new proposal say if the COVID downturn is the problem, a temporary waiver should be the solution.  

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