Letter: Orca Nonprofit Supports New State Whale Watching Rules
By Donna Sandstrom, Whale Trail director and former member of Governor Inslee’s Orca Recovery Task Force
Last Friday, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commissioners approved rules for commercial whale-watching that will make it easier for the endangered southern residents to forage and rear their young in these next few critical years.
Commercial whale-watching on the southern residents will be suspended from October to June, and limited whale-watching (4 hours a day) will be allowed July through September.
While it’s not the year-round suspension the orcas need, it is a strong step towards reducing noise and disturbance from the status quo. There is a role for sustainable boat-based whale-watching. It must be sustainable for the orcas, first.
Over the past decade, while the orcas declined, the number of commercial vessels in the Salish Sea more than doubled and their revenue nearly tripled.
In 2018 there were 54 companies in the Salish Sea operating more than 120 vessels. They follow the orcas year-round, and up to 12 hours a day in the peak summer months. Cumulative exposure to noise and disturbance at these levels negatively impacts foraging ability, social cohesion and reproductive capacity.
J, K and L pods have thrived in these waters for tens of thousands of years. In one human generation, we have brought them to the edge of extinction, from threats that are all human-caused: lack of salmon, toxin accumulations and vessel noise and disturbance.
The threats are interconnected, each worsening the other. Multiple studies show that noise and salmon availability are inextricably linked. Reducing noise and disturbance isn’t the only thing we can or should do, but it’s one of the few tools in our kit that will make a difference in the near-term. With two new calves in the population, there is no time to wait.
An economics report confirmed that avoiding southern residents will have no impact on commercial operators’ economic viability. They have developed a thriving industry watching other species, and southern residents now comprise just ten percent of their viewing opportunities.
More than 4,000 public comments supported these rules or stronger, compared to 208 for the status quo. These reflect a growing wave of awareness about the harmful impacts of noise and disturbance on these acoustic animals and the need for a precautionary approach to managing our impacts on this fragile population.
Thank you to Governor Inslee for his leadership, and to everyone who had a hand in this outcome, from the task force to the legislature to the thousands of people who commented. This is a sea change for the orcas, and a welcome start to a brighter, quieter new year.