A bill to shield endangered Puget Sound orca whales from noise and other disruptions caused by vessel traffic got a first hearing in Olympia on Tuesday. The most controversial piece of the proposed legislation would implement a temporary, de facto ban on Southern Resident whale watching.
Upon passage, House Bill 2580 would immediately double the distance all vessels must maintain from the southern residents, from 200 to 400 yards. It also would require a lower speed limit of 7 knots within half a nautical mile of the whales.
It would establish a four-year restriction on commercial whale watch vessels, requiring that they stay at least 650 yards away — effectively banning whale watching of the Southern Residents until Jan. 1, 2023.
Members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association are opposed to the bill. Erin Gless, Lead Naturalist with Island Adventures, says reducing speeds is crucial and she supports the call for a “go-slow zone” near the endangered whales.
But she says keeping whale watch boats away would have unintended consequences, because the companies and their expertise play an important role on the water. They act as sentinels — finding the whales first and letting all kinds of other vessels know where they are. They demonstrate best practices and help enforce the rules.
If whale watching of the Southern Residents is effectively banned, Gless said recreational boaters who want to avoid them would no longer have an easy marker showing where they are.
“So if they don’t have that marker of the whales’ location, they’re going to be coming through the area at close distances and high rates of speed,” she told legislators in the House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources.
She said this would be physically dangerous to the whales, but also that studies have shown vessel speed is the critical factor in the intensity and disruptiveness of underwater sound.
Vessel noise interferes with the whales’ ability to echolocate and find their food — increasingly scarce Chinook salmon. Advocates for a ban on whale watching say giving the whales space as well as peace and quiet also could reduce stress, a crucial factor for two Southern Residents that are pregnant and another that recently gave birth.
With miscarriage rates high and newborn survival rates low, advocates for the temporary ban say keeping boats away is an immediate measure that could bolster efforts to keep the dwindling population from going extinct. Currently, Puget Sound is home to just 75 orcas with a shortage of reproductive adults.
The dire state of the endangered orca population spurred Gov. Jay Inslee to call for his Orca Recovery Task Force last March. The vessel impacts bill is one of three he requested this session, based on their work.
JT Austin, Inslee’s salmon and orca policy lead, testified that although she recognizes the positive impacts the whale watch boats can have on the water, their presence also can have the opposite effect.
“Recreational boaters can see them out on the water, understand that the whales are present, not necessarily know or want to comply with the regulations and then cause harassment, hovering, high speeds, etc.,” she said.
Others testified about the huge clusters of whale watch boats that often come together on the water when orcas are present. Michael Jasney, an ocean noise pollution expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says in the summer an average of 20 vessels per day — sometimes as many as 50 at a time — congregate around the whales, disrupting their foraging activity and obscuring the echolocation calls used to stay together and share hunting tips.
“We believe that the needs of the whales are paramount, but I would also put to you, that this legislation is important to the future of whale watching in the Salish Sea,” he said.
The whale watch companies have testified in the past that sightings of the endangered whales only make up about 15 percent of their business. Other whales such as transient orcas, Northern residents and Minkes make up the rest. Proponents of the bill testifying at Tuesday’s hearing said that this is the whale watch industry’s chance to be heroes, educating the public about the state of the Southern Residents and explaining why they need to be left alone for now.
The bill also directs the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to implement a new, limited-entry licensing requirement for commercial whale watch boats viewing all species by Jan. 1, 2021. The legislation says it should be designed to reduce daily and cumulative impacts on the endangered orca whales and consider the economic viability of license holders.
A companion bill, Senate Bill 5577, has been introduced in the Senate and referred to the Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Comittee, but a hearing has yet to be scheduled.