Breaching Southern Resident Puget Sound (Mark Sears Permit 21348)

Last Friday, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Commissioners approved rules for commercial whale-watching that will make it easier for the endangered southern residents to forage and rear their young in these next few critical years. Commercial whale-watching on the southern residents will be suspended from October to June, and limited whale-watching (4 hours a day) will be allowed July through September. While it’s not the year-round suspension the orcas need, it is a strong step towards reducing noise and disturbance around these struggling pods. There is a role for sustainable boat-based whale-watching. It must be sustainable for the orcas, first.

Over the past decade, while the orcas declined, the number of commercial vessels in the Salish Sea more than doubled and their revenue nearly tripled. In 2019 there were 55 companies operating more than 120 vessels (Soundwatch Program Annual Contract Report). They follow the orcas year-round, and up to 12 hours a day in the peak summer months. Cumulative exposure to noise and disturbance at these levels negatively impacts foraging ability, social cohesion and reproductive capacity.

K Pod in Puget Sound, 2018 (Mark Sears, Permit 21348)

J, K and L pods have thrived in these water for tens of thousands of years. In one human generation we have brought them to the edge of extinction, from threats that are all human-caused: lack of salmon, toxin accumulations and vessel noise and disturbance. The threats are interconnected, each worsening the other. Multiple studies show that noise and salmon availabiity are inextricably linked. Reducing noise and disturbance isn’t the only thing we can or should do, but it’s one of the few tools in our kit that will make a difference in the near-term. With two new calves in the population, there is no time to wait.

WDFW was guided by a science report that recommended a precautionary approach to rulemaking and said that any vessel approach should be considered a disturbance. An economics report confirmed that avoiding southern residents will have no impact on commercial operators’ economic viability. They have developed a thriving industry watching other species, and southern residents now comprise just ten percent of their viewing opportunities.

Big brother J44 babysitting J53 (Mark Sears, Permit 21348)

More than 4,000 public comments supported these rules or stronger, compared to 208 for the status quo. These reflect a growing wave of awareness about the harmful impacts of noise and disturbance on these acoustic animals, and the need for a precautionary approach to managing our impacts on this fragile population.

These rules are the culmination of a process that began on Governor Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Recovery Task Force. As a member of the Task Force I proposed a licensing system with the ability to to create these rules. The recommendation was approved by a near majority of the Task Force, supported by the Governor, and became the basis of the law passed by the Legislature in 2019.

Thank you to Governor Inslee for his leadership, and to everyone who had a hand in this outcome, from the Task Force to the Legislature to the thousands of people who participated along the way. This is a sea change for the orcas, and a welcome start to a brighter, quieter new year.

Learn More:
State approves rules for commercial viewing of Southern Resident killer whales (WDFW Press Release, 12/21/20)

New whale-watching restrictions enacted to protect southern resident orcas   (Seattle Times 12/21/20)