Licensing and regulations for whale watching in Washington waters will take effect in 2021 in an effort to protect endangered Southern Resident orcas, according to rules approved Friday by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The rules include a July through September season when commercial whale watching companies can view the Southern Resident orcas during two, two-hour periods daily. The rules limit the number of commercial vessels to three within a half-mile of the whales and include penalties for violations.
The commission's decision follows two hours of public comment Dec. 4 and a special meeting to discuss details Dec. 15.
"These critters are in trouble and I've been out on the whale boats, I've been out on the enforcement boats; basically from sun up to sundown there is somebody out there watching them," commissioner Brad Smith said during the Dec. 15 meeting.
The state Legislature directed the commission, which oversees the state Department of Fish & Wildlife, to develop the whale watching rules after Gov. Jay Inslee convened a Southern Resident orca task force to examine issues harming the species. The orcas were federally listed as endangered in 2005.
While whale watching boats aren't the only vessels that create underwater noise in the Salish Sea, and underwater noise isn't the only impact affecting the whales — other top concerns being food supply and water pollution — the consensus is that something needed to be done, and that regulating some boats is a starting point.
"Our intention with this rule-making is not to place the sole burden of reducing underwater noise on whale watch operators, it's to try to hit this cumulative target — combined with the prey availability work, combined with the contaminants work — to try to give the (whales) a chance," Fish & Wildlife's orca policy lead Julie Watson said Friday.
Smith said the rules are precautionary and similar to hunting and fishing regulations meant to preserve wildlife populations for the long term.
"When you get down into the digits that we are in now, extinction is hovering," Smith said of the 74 Southern Resident orcas remaining in the wild. "Business as usual will not be any business, in my estimation, in the future."
The Southern Resident orcas are fish-eating whales that use habitat along the West Coast of North America, including in the Salish Sea. The population includes three family groups called J, K and L pods.
They are the only whale population that frequents the Salish Sea that is declining. Populations of mammal-eating transient orcas, gray whales and humpback whales are on the upswing.
"We are rarely presented with this stark of a conservation challenge," commission Vice Chair Barbara Baker said Friday.
Marine scientists suggest the Southern Resident orcas face a multipronged problem centered on their diet. There are fewer fish available for them to eat, more noise in the water affecting their ability to find the fish, and more pollution in the water that impacts their health when they are not well fed.
"It's important that we do something on this issue," Watson said during the Dec. 15 meeting. "We really want to limit the number of days and hours ... that vessels are interrupting foraging time."
The 38 speakers who commented Dec. 4 shared conflicting perspectives. Some urged a full prohibition on whale watching to reduce pressure on the orcas, while others said whale watching boats help protect the species from other vessels.
Speakers included retirees from NOAA Fisheries, representatives of conservation groups, operators of whale watching companies and residents of San Juan and Skagit counties.
Anacortes resident Amy Eberling, who was inspired to launch the Salish Sea School after a local whale watching tour, was among those who said the educational aspect of whale watching is important for orca conservation.
"Experience is the No. 1 thing for creating an advocate," she said.
Fish and Wildlife Commission members said reaching a decision wasn't easy.
"We're in a situation with a very depressed population and we have to do something to make some progress," commissioner James Anderson said.