New commercial whale-watching rules to take effect in 2021

New commercial whale-watching regulations for 2021 were approved by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife last week.

The rules restrict the months that Southern Resident orcas can be viewed by commercial tours to July through September, Fridays through Mondays. On those days, there will be two two-hour periods, when orcas can be viewed. Only three vessels may view a group at a time during those periods.

The rules also establish a year-round “no-go” zone on the west side of San Juan Island, which is an important orca foraging area.

The goal is to lessen noise impacts on the endangered orcas.

“The adopted rules are an important part of a broader suite of efforts that the department is continuing to pursue to help prevent the extinction of these animals while preserving an appropriate opportunity to admire them,” Kelly Susewind, director of Fish and Wildlife, said in a press release.

The Southern Resident population totaled 74 whales as of October, according to the Center for Whale Research. There are 24 in J pod, 17 in K pod, and 33 in L pod, the Friday Harbor-based center reports. The Southern Resident population was halved in the 1960s and 1970s by captures for marine parks and, later, further reduced by environmental stresses and diminishing numbers of salmon, which make up the bulk of their diet.

Though not all orcas are endangered, the three Southern Resident pods, specifically, were named an endangered species in 2005, but has not recovered its numbers.

“When you get down into the digits that we are in now, extinction is hovering,” Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Brad Smith said at the Friday commission meeting. “Business as usual will not be any business, in my estimation, in the future.”

Gov. Jay Inslee created the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force in 2018, and it released 49 immediate recommendations.

Fish and Wildlife is involved in two-thirds of those recommendations, which include increasing salmon numbers via hatcheries, conservation and fishery management, according to a commission policy statement.

Commercial whale-watching companies are not the only ones to have vessel noise impacts on orca populations.

NOAA last month approved a seven-year regulation with the Navy, which allows them to incidently “take” a certain number of marine mammals a year during the course of testing and training activities.

“Take” is defined by the Marine Mammal Protection Act as any activity that harasses, harms, captures or kills a marine mammal.

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