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WA lawmakers pass on whale-watching ban aimed at helping orcas

Orca Task Force members and Gov. Jay Inslee said the moratorium was needed to give the endangered whales a break from boat noise.

Whale watching tour

An orca leaps out of the water near a whale-watching boat in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands, Washington, on July 31, 2015. A Washington state task force on critically endangered Northwest orcas recommended temporarily suspending whale-watching operations in November. (Photo by Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

Washington legislators came into their 2019 session brimming with proposals to help rescue Puget Sound’s imperiled orcas. But now they have dropped one of the most important — and controversial — ideas: a three-year moratorium on commercial whale watching.

Lawmakers denied Gov. Jay Inslee's attempt to force commercial whale-watching boats to keep extra distance from three pods of orcas that summer in the waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea between Washington and Canada.

In doing so, they rejected a key recommendation supported by the majority of nearly 50 researchers, state and tribal officials and others who served on the Southern Resident Orca Task Force.

"The task force really felt it was critical," said task force Co-Chair Stephanie Solien, who is also a civic activist and vice chair of the leadership council of the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency. "We felt that a temporary moratorium ... would give them kind of a break, from just the constant noise and interference that science shows they experience when they are surrounded by whale-watching boats."

Scientists say the noise of boat motors interferes with the whales’ ability to find its favored prey, chinook salmon, through echolocation. This biological sonar allows orcas to create a sonic map of their surroundings when they emit a series of clicks by moving air between nasal sacs near their blowhole. When these clicks hit such objects as a fish and bounce back to a listening orca, the whales can determine precise distance and location of that object — similar to a human listening for an echo.   

Bills filed early in the legislative session would have prohibited commercial whale watchers from approaching a southern resident orca within 650 yards until 2023. Some whale-watching industry supporters called that a de facto orca-watching ban. Currently whale-watching boats and other vessels must stay 200 yards away from the orcas.

The bill's sponsors struck the moratorium from substitute bills in both chambers.

"I didn't think that that was necessary," Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, the lead sponsor of the original bill in the House, HB 1580.

Blake said public testimony in the House persuaded him to remove the 650-yard limit from his bill, as did private discussions with whale conservationists and advocates for the whale-watching industry. He also learned that the commercial orca-watching fleet's presence alerts the crews of other vessels that orcas are in the vicinity, reinforcing the need to proceed through the water cautiously.

"We would lose that if we shut them down," Blake said in an interview.

Shane Aggergaard, a whale-watching boat captain and business manager, made a similar argument to the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee in a Feb. 12 hearing on the Senate version of the bill, SB 5577.

"If you have a moratorium, there won't be boats on scene to lead as an example," Aggergaard told the committee."You take us away, we can't possibly put enough enforcement out there to protect these animals."

The Pacific Whale Watch Association touted orca-watching boats as warning tools for recreational, shipping and military vessels in a special addendum to the orca task force's final list of recommendations released in November. The association also said it gives sighting information to the Center for Whale Research, a nonprofit orca study and conservation group.

"The whale-watching industry does care about these orca, and they are active on our task force," Solien said. "But they disagreed with that [moratorium] approach, and they were able to get support in the Legislature to withdraw that suspension."

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, said she took out the 650-yard-limit from her bill because "we did not want to destroy the whale-watching industry." She said the industry "builds public support for saving orca whales, and it's ... part of our region's economy."

"We also believe that if the whale-watching boats are behaving responsibly, [then] they set up the buffer and the other boats follow," Rolfes said.

In addition, she said "most of the science indicated that you could be closer if you were going slow," as laid out in the bill.

The legislation enjoyed strong bipartisan support in both chambers, with the House bill passing 78-20 in the House and the Senate version approved 46-3. Democratic House leaders plan to pass the Senate version and send it to Inslee.

House Republican Leader J. T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, voted for HB 1580. "I probably wouldn't support a total ban [on orca watching]," he said in an interview. "That's why I supported the compromise."

"To say that you can have a boat out there that's fishing, or a ferry that's transporting people, but you can't have somebody operating a boat and adding to the economy, full of people that want to look through their binoculars at an orca, just seems silly," he said.

By contrast, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, chair of the House Environment and Energy Committee, said he "very much would have supported a temporary suspension in order to just ensure that we were being as protective as possible” of the whales.

“It was clear to me that that did not have support to pass," he said."I'm never interested in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, knowing how incremental the legislative process can be."

While there are scientists and environmental activists who see value in orca-watching vessels, at least one backed the original version of the Senate and House bills that contained the moratorium. Todd Hass, special projects liaison at Puget Sound Partnership, said at the Feb. 12 Senate committee hearing that noise pollution is a serious problem.

"Why do we need to quiet the waters? Because orcas are highly auditory animals and take advantage of the typically great benefits of using sound-based signaling and hearing, rather than vision," said Hass, who holds a Ph.D. in marine ecology and has studied acoustic communication.

The orca task force and Inslee’s moratorium recommendation applied only to southern resident orcas; other species, including Bigg's (also known as transient) orcas, were exempt. The transient orcas eat marine mammals like seals, and their populations are much healthier: Some 250 visited the Salish Sea in Washington and British Columbia last year. By contrast, Puget Sound’s resident fish-eating orcas now number only 75, down from a historic population size thought to have been around 200.

Lawmakers in Olympia have retained many of the task force-recommended measures to lessen noise for southern resident orcas. Provisions in the bill include forcing boats to observe a "go-slow" zone of half a nautical mile in any direction from a southern resident orca; forbidding people from positioning vessels fewer than 400 yards behind an orca; and prohibiting the steering of a vessel or other object within 300 yards of an orca.

Under current law, vessels are banned from approaching within 200 yards of an orca and from positioning a vessel in the path of an orca at any point within 400 yards.

The Senate legislation, which lawmakers plan to send to Inslee, would also introduce a commercial whale-watch license, which will be required of all commercial whale-watch operators.

The Senate bill is in the House Appropriations Committee and could receive a vote of approval from the committee on Monday. It then would move to the Rules Committee, which will decide when to schedule it for a House floor vote that would send the legislation to Inslee. The governor is expected to sign it.

 

InvestigateWest is a Seattle-based nonprofit newsroom producing journalism for the common good. Learn more and sign up to receive alerts about future stories at http://www.invw.org/newsletters/.

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WA lawmakers pass on whale-watching ban aimed at helping orcas

About the Authors & Contributors

Rachel Nielsen

Rachel Nielsen is a freelance reporter based in Seattle. Previously, she covered venture capital and technology from New York/Jersey City, affordable housing from New York and business and politics from Russia.