New whale tour company regulations to take effect

The Southern resident orcas have not significantly improved their numbers since becoming an endangered species in 2005. Photo taken under NOAA/NMFS Permit #21114.

Tour companies that offer chances to view whales will face new challenges in 2021 with new regulations and a licensing program aimed at lessening impacts on endangered Southern Resident orcas.

The regulations restrict viewing of the Southern Resident orcas from July through September, when they come to this area to feed on salmon. The regulations also create a licensing process for whale-watching operators and require training and real-time reporting to the Whale Report Alert System. Licenses will be required in March and reporting required in May.

Erin Gless, lead naturalist for Island Adventures tour company, based in Anacortes, has concerns with the new program.

She fears that the public may not realize that there are other species that can be seen, not restricted to those months. “Most of the orcas we see are Bigg’s killer whales,” Gless said. She estimates up to 80% of the orcas seen on their tours are these transients, which are not a protected species.

“We as a business will be OK, but we feel strongly that the whales will lose out,” Gless said.

Gless said most of the time, the only vessels present with orcas are whale-watching vessels, which can warn other boats in the vicinity of their presence. They often warn ferries, Navy vessels and cargo ships that whales are in their path, Gless said.

“Our fear is that we will not be there, but other boats will be,” Gless said.

She took issue that the new licensing program aims only at whale-watching vessels.

“Everyone loves the whales, but what to do about them is the dividing line,” Gless said.

Alanna Frayne, Soundwatch and Be Whale Wise program coordinator, said Be Whale Wise, which is a joint partnership between The Whale Museum and other groups like NOAA, was a part of the state Fish and Wildlife advisory committee for the new rules.

Soundwatch is a program of The Whale Museum, located in Friday Harbor. The program observes and reports on vessel behavior while Be Whale Wise does outreach and education to boaters to reduce their impacts on wildlife, especially the Southern Resident orcas, which gained federal endangered status in 2005.

Frayne said vessel noise interferes with orcas’ ability to hunt. The more vessels and the faster they go, the more interference orcas face. There is also less salmon, which is the Southern Resident orcas primary food source.

Frayne said while the data Soundwatch collects is not designed to answer two competing theories – that whale watching boats in the vicinity of whales either attract or repel other vessel traffic – Be Whale Wise does use Soundwatch and other data to make recommendations to regulatory agencies such as state Fish and Wildlife.

Be Whale Wise was in support of option A, which did not allow for a shoulder season for viewing Southern Resident orcas. Option A is the one that ultimately passed.

While the Southern Resident orcas swim around Puget Sound in 2021, there will be fewer tour boats viewing them.

“I think (Fish and Widlife) is taking a step in the right direction,” Frayne said.

Correction: A earlier version of this story misstated which program was on the advisory committee for WDFW for the new Southern Resident orca touring regulations. Both Soundwatch and Be Whale Wise are programs coordinated by Alanna Frayne of the Whale Museum, but they are separate entities.

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I cover health, environment, business and more at the Anacortes American. Feel free to send me tips at qinghram [at] goanacortes.com.

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