The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is looking for additional public feedback on draft commercial whale watching rules it released today to reduce vessel impacts on Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW).

Prompted by Senate Bill 5577 in 2019, WDFW is developing rules for how, when, and where commercial whale-watching of SRKWs can occur. The new rules are intended to reduce impacts of vessel noise and disturbance on SRKWs so that they can effectively find food, rest and socialize.

“Public engagement has been critical to our work to develop these draft rules,” said Julie Watson, WDFW killer whale policy lead. “We want to make sure we’re continuing to bring forward the voices of everyone invested in recovering Southern Resident killer whales.”

The public may submit written comments online through Dec. 5 (comments received by Nov. 13 will be analyzed for presentation to the Fish and Wildlife Commission). The Commission will also take public comment during a virtual hearing for the draft rules scheduled for Dec. 4-5.

The draft rules limit commercial viewing of SRKW to specific months of the year, days of the week, and times of day. The draft rules also create limits on the number of motorized commercial whale watching boats that can be near a group of SRKW at one time, and entirely closes an important foraging area on the west side of San Juan Island to motorized commercial whale watching boats.

Both options include details describing the licensing application process, reporting and training requirements, rules specifically for human-powered vessels like kayaks and rule violation penalties. Both options also propose that commercial whale watchers must operate an Automatic Identification System, which reports real-time vessel tracking data, starting in 2022.

Finally, both options propose formalizing the ‘no-go’ zone on the west side of San Juan Island, which is currently voluntary, for motorized commercial whale watching vessels, while preserving a 100-yard corridor along the shore for kayaks. This geographic restriction would apply year-round regardless of SRKW presence.

The draft rules include two options for the SRKW-viewing season. Both options would restrict when whale watching boats can operate within one-half nautical mile (roughly the size of 10 football fields in each direction) bubble around SRKWs to two, two-hour periods per day within defined months and days; however, there are variations in the seasonal restrictions:

Option A includes:

  • A three-month July-September season for motorized commercial whale watching of Southern Residents.  
  • A limit of three motorized commercial whale watching vessels at a time with a group of Southern Residents.

Option B proposes:

  • The same requirements as Option A for the July-September season, but restricts viewing to Friday-Monday during those months.  
  • A shoulder season with Saturday-Sunday viewing for two months on either side of the main season: May-June and October-November. During the shoulder season, there would be a limit of one motorized commercial whale watching vessel at a time with a group of Southern Residents.

The seasons described in Options A and B only apply to the viewing of SRKW by motorized commercial whale watching vessels and do not further restrict the viewing of Bigg’s killer whales or other species of whales and marine mammals beyond regulations already in place.

To view the full draft rules and provide a comment, please visit WDFW’s commercial whale-watching rulemaking webpage at wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/at-risk/species-recovery/orca/rule-making. An economic analysis of the impact of Options A and B on small businesses is also available on the rulemaking webpage.

Throughout 2020, WDFW staff received input from its Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program Advisory Committee as well as an intergovernmental coordination group and an independent science panel. The rules are also being informed by a report summarizing the science, an environmental impact analysis of various options and an analysis of the economic impacts on the affected industry.

The public is also invited to continue participating in a concurrent public comment period, wrapping up this Friday, Oct. 23, on the environmental impacts being considered as part of this process. Comments can be submitted online at wdfw.wa.gov/licenses/environmental/sepa/open-comments or by mail to Lisa Wood, SEPA/NEPA Coordinator, WDFW Habitat Program, Protection Division, P.O. Box 43200, Olympia, WA 98504.  

WDFW is the state agency tasked with preserving, protecting and perpetuating fish, wildlife and ecosystems, while providing sustainable fishing, hunting and other outdoor recreation opportunities.