New Year, New Rules For Commercial Whale Watching

Posted January 3, 2021 at 5:30 am by

Contributed Photo/Jeanne Hyde, Documentarian of The Whale Museum's Orca Adoption Program

From Wash­in­ton Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife

On Dec. 21, the Wash­ing­ton Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife announced new rules for com­mer­cial view­ing of South­ern Res­i­dent killer whales to reduce the impacts of ves­sel noise and dis­tur­bance on the whales’ abil­i­ty to for­age, rest, and social­ize while enabling sus­tain­able whale watching.

Prompt­ed by the Leg­is­la­ture through Sen­ate Bill 5577, the rules are expect­ed to take effect in ear­ly 2021. The Wash­ing­ton Fish and Wildlife Com­mis­sion approved the rules dur­ing its Dec. 18 meet­ing. The rules only restrict com­mer­cial view­ing of SRKW and do not fur­ther restrict the view­ing of Big­g’s killer whales, hump­backs, or oth­er species of whales and marine mam­mals beyond reg­u­la­tions already in place.

“This process has high­light­ed the exten­sive com­mu­ni­ty invest­ed in the recov­ery of South­ern Res­i­dent killer whales,” said Kel­ly Susewind, WDFW Direc­tor. “The adopt­ed rules are an impor­tant part of a broad­er suite of efforts that the Depart­ment is con­tin­u­ing to pur­sue to help pre­vent the extinc­tion of these ani­mals while pre­serv­ing an appro­pri­ate oppor­tu­ni­ty to admire them.”

The rules include a three-month, July-Sep­tem­ber sea­son when com­mer­cial view­ing of SRKW by motor­ized com­mer­cial whale watch­ing ves­sels may hap­pen at clos­er than one-half nau­ti­cal mile dur­ing two, two-hour peri­ods dai­ly (lim­it of three motor­ized com­mer­cial whale watch­ing ves­sels per group of SRKW).

The rules for­mal­ize the cur­rent­ly vol­un­tary ‘no-go’ zone along the west side of San Juan Island to com­mer­cial whale watch­ing ves­sels year-round regard­less of SRKW pres­ence, allow­ing a 100-yard cor­ri­dor for com­mer­cial kayak operations.

The rules also out­line license appli­ca­tion process­es for com­mer­cial whale watch­ing oper­a­tors, report­ing and train­ing require­ments includ­ing real-time report­ing to the Whale Report Alert Sys­tem, onboard geo-locat­ing soft­ware require­ments, and rules for com­mer­cial kayak tours view­ing SRK­Ws. Licens­es will be required for com­mer­cial whale watch­ing oper­a­tions start­ing March 1, and report­ing require­ments will go into effect May 1, 2021.

The Com­mis­sion is work­ing on a pol­i­cy state­ment about SRKW recov­ery and addi­tion­al whale watch­ing rec­om­men­da­tions for com­mer­cial and pri­vate vessels. 

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. In addi­tion to the State Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act process, the rules were also informed by reports sum­ma­riz­ing the sci­ence and ana­lyz­ing eco­nom­ic impacts on small busi­ness­es. The Com­mis­sion also received input from more than 4,000 com­menters on the draft rules.

To view the rules, best avail­able sci­ence report, eco­nom­ic analy­sis, envi­ron­men­tal review and oth­er details, vis­it WDFW’s com­mer­cial whale-watch­ing rule­mak­ing web­page at

As request­ed by Sen­ate Bill 5577, WDFW will review the effec­tive­ness of the com­mer­cial whale watch­ing and broad­er ves­sel rules and pro­duce a report every two years (Novem­ber 2022, 2024, and 2026) with rec­om­men­da­tions for poten­tial mod­i­fi­ca­tions. The leg­is­la­tion defines com­mer­cial whale watch­ing as the act of tak­ing, or offer­ing to take, pas­sen­gers aboard a ves­sel in order to view marine mam­mals in their nat­ur­al habi­tat for a fee. The reg­u­la­tions apply to oper­a­tors of com­mer­cial ves­sels and kayak rentals who take part in the busi­ness of com­mer­cial whale watching.

The Depart­ment reminds recre­ation­al boaters to con­tin­ue to fol­low new killer whale view­ing reg­u­la­tions, which Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee signed into law last year, requir­ing ves­sels to stay at least 300 yards from South­ern Res­i­dent killer whales and at least 400 yards out of their path or behind the whales. Ves­sels must also reduce their speed to sev­en knots with­in a half-mile of a South­ern Res­i­dent killer whale.

“We all have a cru­cial role in help­ing to give these whales the best chance at sur­vival,” said Julie Wat­son, WDFW killer whale pol­i­cy lead. “We encour­age recre­ation­al boaters to take steps as well to sup­port South­ern Res­i­dent killer whale recov­ery, includ­ing going slow and giv­ing these whales extra space.”

Boaters are encour­aged to watch for the Whale Warn­ing Flag, an option­al tool from the San Juan Coun­ty Marine Resources Com­mit­tee, that lets oth­ers know that there might be whales near­by. If you see the flag, slow down and fol­low guide­lines. Recre­ation­al boaters are encour­aged to vis­it

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. 

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Categories: Animals, Wildlife

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