Last week, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) proposed its draft rules for commercial whale-watching viewing of the southern resident orcas (see announcement here).  Two options (A and B)  are proposed.

Key features of both are that no whale-watching would be allowed on any group that includes a calf less than a year old, and a voluntary no-go zone on the west side of San Juan Island would become mandatory. Whale-watching of the southern residents would be allowed under both options, but they differ in the seasons that viewing can occur.

Option A includes:

  • A seasonal closure of whale-watching on the southern residents from October 1 through June 30.
  • Limited whale-watching of the southern residents July 1 through September 30, allowing three vessels with each group of whales in two 2-hour sessions, for a total of four hours per day.
  • For the summer season the department is considering allowing whale-watching every day (“as filed”) or Friday through Monday only.

Option B is the same as Option A, except as follows:

  • In addition to the summer season, whale-watching would be allowed on weekends during the shoulder seasons (May-June and October- November.)
  • During the shoulder season one boat would be allowed with each group of whales.
  • During the summer months, Option B proposes whale-watching Friday through Monday only.

The rules must be in place by January 1, 2021, and the initial licensing period is for two years.

Our take:

We strongly support Option A, so long as the seasonal closure is extended year-round to provide maximum foraging space for the population that now includes two new calves and more on the way.

  • An economics report prepared for WDFW showed that the industry does not depend on viewing southern residents for economic viability. With no economic need to approach the SRKW, allowing any whale-watching and intentional disturbance on this critically endangered species is a significant and unnecessary compromise.
  • The first two years of the licensing period correspond to a “baby boom” in the population. The opportunity to recover this population is not theoretical, it is here. The orcas need maximum foraging space and protection in these next few critical years.
  • Please tell WDFW to apply the rules as they were intended: to protect the orcas first.

The rules must achieve the purpose of the law, consider population status, and be consistent with how the department manages human impacts on other depleted or endangered species and populations. Options should be evaluated for how well they reduce impact on orcas compared to the status quo.

1. Purpose of Law. The law says: “The rules must be designed to reduce the daily and cumulative impacts on southern resident orca whales and consider the economic viability of license holders”.

  • A science report recommended a precautionary approach to rulemaking, said that any approach closer than 1/2 nautical mile should be considered a disturbance, and that there is no evidence of a “sentinel” effect.
  • The Economic Viability Analysis showed that commercial whale-watching operators are not dependent on viewing SRKW for economic viability. In fact, the opposite is true. Avoiding southern residents appears to be better for business. Last year, while a suspension on watching the southern residents was in place in Canada, ridership on Canadian vessels increased. Passengers will support businesses that put the orcas’ needs first.

2. Population Status. The initial license period covers two years, which corresponds with a new “baby boom” in the population.

  • After losing five adults over the past two years, the population has added two calves in the last two months and could add at least three more in the near future.
  • The opportunity for these rules to support the recovery of the southern residents is not theoretical – it is tangible and real.

WDFW should adopt rules to support population growth in these next two critical years, and give the new calves the best chance to reach maturity. The rules should provide meaningful reductions in noise and disturbance for the whole population and especially to ensure the calves and their mothers have the nutritional support they need.

3. Rulemaking Approach. WDFW must use the best available science to apply rules to protect the population, the same as it manages any other “weak stock” species.

  • Setting limits for whale-watching is no different than setting limits on activities that impact any other species or population.
  • When rockfish populations became depleted WDFW closed all of Puget Sound to rockfish fishing. When the population rebounded to a healthy level, fishing restrictions were lifted.

4. Evaluation Criteria. The economic report showed that even the most precautionary approach will have no impact on commercial whale-watching economic viability. The economic impact of both options is the same. The rules should be evaluated for how well they reduce impacts on the orcas, compared to the status quo.

Recommended Option

We strongly support Option A which includes a seasonal closure for whale-watching on the southern residents, and recommend the closure be expanded from nine months to year-round to provide maximum space and foraging opportunities for the population that now includes 2 new calves and at least three pregnant females.

  • Compared to the status quo, option A with an expanded closure will achieve maximum reduction in daily and cumulative impacts on this critically endangered population, commensurate with the population need.

We strongly reject Option B, which expands intentional disturbance on this critically endangered species to include months when the orcas feed in Puget Sound (October – November), and periods when they are known to be nutritionally stressed.

  • Compared to the status quo, Option B provides minimal or no reduction in daily and cumulative impacts for most of the year.
  • For the shoulder seasons, the proposed days and hours are very close to current CWW days and hours. The rules are effective at reducing disturbance only if whales happen to be present on weekdays.

The whales’ presence can be predicted generally (i.e. which months they are likely to be here and where), but not specifically (i.e. which days). Closures will only have the predicted and desired effect of reducing impacts on orcas if they are broader (seasonal), not tied to specific days.

What’s Next?

Public comments will be accepted on these rules until December 5th. The rules will be presented to Fish and Wildlife Commissioners at its meeting December 4/5th. Commissioners are the decision-makers. They may decide to implement Option A or B, some combination of those options, or a new option all together. The rules must be in place by January 1, 2021.

This is the last leg in a long marathon to protect the orcas. What DFW decides now will be in place for two years, and determined whether the whales get the space the need to survive, and thrive – or not. With two new calves in the population and more on the way, there’s no time to wait.

How you Can Help

1.   Submit Comments by November 13. (Submit comments here.) Public comments will be accepted by WDFW through December 5. However any comments provided after November 13 will not be  included in the summary presented to the commissioners.  Please send your comments to DFW by November 13, to ensure your voice is heard. Uo

2.  Spread the word! Tell your friends and family and networks and encourage them to write letters too. We have a rare window to make a tangible difference in the lives of these beloved and iconic orcas.

3.  Watch the movie “Sentinel of Silence” which explores issues of noise, commercial whale-watching and the southern residents. It is available on you tube here.