In 2019, the Washington State Legislature passed a law requiring all commercial whale-watching companies to be licensed. The law gives WDFW the authority to set limits on the number of boats, time with whales, hours and areas of operation. The legislation mandates that WDFW must create rules that reduce noise and disturbance around the southern residents, and consider financial impact on license holders. Rules must be in place by January 1, 2021. See WDFW Commercial Whale Watch Licensing Program .

Pre-Draft Rules

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) published its pre-draft rules for Commercial Whale-Watching Licensing last week. (Read them here.) Key features are:

  • No whale-watching on the southern residents would be allowed October 1 through June 30. All commercial operators must stay one-half nautical mile (1,000 yards) away.
  • Whale-watching between July 1 and September 30th would be allowed but limited to 4 hours per day and 3 boats per group.
  • No whale-watching would be allowed on any group with a calf less than a year old.

Our Take:

This is a strong start but the rules can be even stronger, by reducing noise and disturbance around the whales and giving them the best chance to forage year-round.The goal of the rules as defined in the law is to reduce noise and disturbance around the orcas, and consider financial impact on license holders.

  • An economics report confirmed that commercial operators do not depend on watching southern residents for economic viability:
    “…Primary Motorized Whale Watch and Kayak Tour sectors are not financially dependent upon SRKW viewing…the industry has remained profitable despite previous reductions in SRKW viewing opportunities over the past ten years.” (Economic Viability Analysis, p. 3)
  • A science report by the Washington Academy of Science recommends a precautionary approach: “Given the fragile condition of the SRKW population, however, the committee considers the precautionary approach to management of known stressors to be justified. The committee recommends defining every interaction with an SRKW as an opportunity to disturb a whale.” (Summary of Key Research Findings about Underwater Noise and Vessel Disturbance, August 2020, p. 1)
  • With no economic need to approach southern residents, commercial operators have made the case that they serve a “sentinel” function. However the science panel found no evidence of that.

The science is clear, the economics are clear, and the need is clear. There is no economic justification to allow commercial operators to approach the southern residents, and there is a conservation imperative to give this critically endangered species a better chance to find food, nurse, and rear their young.

This is the last leg of a long relay that began as a recommendation by the Governor’s Task Force, championed by The Whale Trail. January 1 2021 will start a new era of meaningful protection for the southern resident orcas…or not. Let’s finish strong for the orcas, and give Tahlequah, her calf and kin a fighting chance. Your voice matters, now more than ever. See below for next steps, key dates and links to supporting documents.

Action Items

1. Comment On Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) by 10/23.
A Draft EIS was published in September. Public comments will be accepted on the Draft EIS until October 23rd. Provide written comments and/or provide comments in person at a public meeting on October 19.


  • To view the draft environmental review, best available science report, and economic analysis, visit WDFW’s commercial whale-watching rule making webpage at
  • You can submit written comments online at  or by mail to Lisa Wood, SEPA/NEPA Coordinator, WDFW Habitat Program, Protection Division, P.O. Box 43200, Olympia, WA 98504. Deadline is 10/23.
  • Attend Public Meeting October 19, 2020 from 6:00-8:00 pm. Register here
  • WDFW will take comments on the draft SEPA Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Alternatively, you may submit written comments through WDFW’s SEPA webpage.
2. Draft rules will be published on 10/21. Submit written public comments through 11/13.
3. Attend Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting 12/4 – 12/53.
  • Attend Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting and public hearing on the draft rules 12/4 – 12/5.
  • Fish and Wildlife Decision is scheduled for 12/18. Rules must be in place by 1/1/2021.

Key Dates


10/19, 6pm. SEPA public meeting (register for the 10/19 meeting here)

10/21. Filing of draft rules and small business economic impact statement—public comment (written) open through 11/13

10/23. Deadline for Comments on Draft EIS.

11/13. Deadline for Comments on Draft Rules.

12/4-5. Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting and public hearing on the draft rules

12/18. Fish and Wildlife Commission scheduled decision

Key Documents


Pre-Draft Rules. Establishing the commercial whale watching license and restrictions on commercial viewing of southern resident killer whales in WAC (WDFW 10/1/2020)

Draft EIS. Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement: Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program (WDFW 9/23/2020)

Supplemental documents produced for WDFW Licensing Program:

Best Available Science Report (Washington Academy of Science)

Recommendation for Adaptive Management (WAS)

Economic Viability Analysis (Industrial Economics, Inc.)


 RCW 77.65.615. Commercial whale watching license—Fees—Definitions.

RCW 77.65.620. Commercial whale watching license—Adoption of rules—Analysis and report to the governor and the legislature—Definitions.

RCW  77.15.740. Protection of southern resident orca whales—Unlawful activities—Penalty.

Senate Bill 5577, a Bill concerning the protection of southern resident orcas from vessels