The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has released a document examining options for licensing commercial whale-watching companies.

Between the announcements of two new Southern Resident orca calves in the Salish Sea during September, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife released a document examining options for licensing commercial whale-watching companies.

The state agency on Sept. 23 published a draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, outlining options for licensing, which is aimed at better protecting the endangered orca whales.

Licensing will be a new kind of oversight for the whale-watching industry, which includes boats of various sizes that take customers onto the Salish Sea to see iconic wildlife including orca, gray and humpback whales. The state Legislature directed Fish and Wildlife in spring 2019 to establish a licensing program as part of an effort to prevent extinction of the Southern Resident orcas. 

On the heels of the draft EIS, Fish and Wildlife released an early draft of licensing rules on Oct. 1. The agency is taking public comment and has scheduled virtual public meetings for both documents. 

"With two new orca calves born in the last month, we know people are excited and invested in helping create conditions that give these whales the best chance at survival," Fish and Wildlife's orca policy lead Julie Watson said in a news release. 

After receiving public comment, Fish and Wildlife will produce a final EIS with a preferred alternative and present its recommendations to the Fish and Wildlife Commission in December. The commission will decide on a final rule for licensing, which is expected to take effect Feb. 1. 

The Southern Resident orca population that is the focus of the licensing rules includes three family groups — called J, K and L pods — that each frequent the Salish Sea. The population was deemed endangered in 2005 but has continued to decline — from 88 when listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act to 74 now with the births of the two calves in J Pod.

The decline is thought to be caused by exposure to pollution and underwater noise from boat traffic, combined with not enough salmon to eat. 

State licensing for whale watching is intended to reduce boat noise, allowing the orcas more time to rest and hunt for fish using echolocation.  

"Vessels, including commercial whale-watching vessels, create noise and disturbance that can elicit behavioral disruptions such as reduced foraging behaviors, changes in swimming patterns, increased surface-active behaviors and, along with other stressors, this can threaten their viability in Washington waters," a news release about the draft EIS states. 

The EIS includes four alternatives. They range from no action to establish licensing to licensing that would limit all whale-watching operations to no more than four hours per day no more than two days per week, for up to 10 months of the year. During the remaining months of the year, the limits would apply only to Southern Resident orca viewing. 

“We’re using the best available science to support the conservation of these iconic animals,” Fish and Wildlife's Watson said in the release. 

Among the rules in the draft released Wednesday is a requirement of annual licensing for any company offering whale watching by motorized boat, sailboat or kayak, including an annual training for all boat operators.

Whale-watching boats would have to stay more than a half-mile from Southern Resident orcas nine months of the year — October through June. During the remaining months, the more than half-mile distance must be maintained except for four hours of the day, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 to 5 p.m. 

No more than three motorized whale-watching boats could be in the vicinity of a Southern Resident at the same time, according to the draft rules, which also outline new reporting requirements and penalties. 

Starting May 1, whale-watching companies would be required to maintain and submit to Fish and Wildlife information on sightings of Southern Resident orcas. By Jan. 1, 2022, whale-watching boats would need to have automatic identification systems installed allowing state and federal authorities to identify the vessel and its position, course and speed. 

An economic impact study suggests the proposed rules would not harm the whale-watching industry's viability so long as it recovers from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most expensive part is expected to be installation of automatic identification systems, which the study concluded would cost less than 1% of the industry's annual revenue. 

As for penalties, violations of the licensing rules would come with fines between $100 and $500 per incident, according to the draft rules. The more incidents accrued per license holder and industry wide, the tighter restrictions on viewing Southern Resident orcas would become for the remainder of the month. 

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel


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