To protect orcas, boats in Puget Sound must stay 1,000 yards away

SB 5371 expands the buffer zone for endangered southern resident killer whales, who depend on sonar to hunt and communicate in the Salish Sea.

an orca leaps out of the water near a whale watching boat

In this July 31, 2015 file photo, an orca leaps out of the water near a Salish Sea whale-watching boat in the San Juan Islands. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Soon, boats on Puget Sound will have to stay farther from the area’s iconic southern resident killer whales. 

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign Senate Bill 5371, which would expand the buffer zone between southern resident orcas and boats from 400 to 1,000 yards. Washington’s Democrat-dominated Senate passed SB 5371 on a 29-18 party-line vote on Feb. 28, and it passed the House by a bipartisan 95-2 vote on April 11.

The importance of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, revolves around the survival of an endangered Puget Sound orca community, known as the southern residents, which currently number 73 with 25 females capable of reproducing. The area’s transient orcas — maybe about 200 in the Salish Sea — are not considered endangered.

“Our desire to see these animals has pushed them to the brink of extinction,” Lovelett said at a March 15 hearing on the measure.

Scientists studying them believe that the beloved orcas, which are more closely related to dolphins than whales, have been adversely affected by cacophonic noise under the Salish Sea, and the increased buffer zone may help by keeping noisy boats farther away, according to Tara Galuska, orca recovery coordinator for Gov. Jay Inslee’s Salmon Recovery Office, and Julie Watson, orca recovery lead for the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department.  

At times, to a southern resident trying to find prey and communicate with its pod, Puget Sound can resemble a rock concert with the band’s amplifiers cranked up to 11, Galuska and Watson acknowledged.  

Southern residents use sound like sonar to find the fish that make up their diet. “They click a lot to find their prey. … When interrupted by other noise, it makes it harder for them to find food,” Galuska said.

Boat and ship engines interfere with the southern residents’ bat-like sonar.

“When you get animals that rely on echolocation to find prey and each other, and you have boats of all sizes, shapes and speeds in their habitat, it makes it difficult to navigate water, to take care of their young and to find food,” Lovelett said. 

In 2019, the Legislature set a 400-yard bubble around the southern residents. In 2022 the state issued 33 warnings and 12 citations to vessels violating the bubble, according to Capt. Alan Myers of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s enforcement division, but scientists say the orcas are still suffering from boat noise. 

This bill is focused on recreational vehicles, as commercial whale watch vessels have been staying 1,000 yards away from southern residents since 2021, according to Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association

Three orca studies published in 2021 illustrated the ways noise is affecting the southern residents, according to a November 2022 report from the state department. 

Those studies showed that southern residents dove less frequently beneath the surface to hunt for food when boats were within 400 yards. Females would dive less frequently and with less success than males under those conditions. The killer whales also burn off more energy as they stay on the surface when vessels are nearby. These effects occur even when vessels travel at one or two knots, compared to the legal limit of seven knots when in the vicinity of a southern resident.

The Fish and Wildlife Department report said work needs to be done on improving foraging conditions – and results – for the southern residents. 

“The most recent advancements in science suggest that our statutes, if modified to provide increased protections of [southern residents] from vessel impacts, could afford increased foraging and foraging success at a critical juncture in the population’s recovery trajectory,” the report said. It concluded that the Legislature should increase the vessel buffer zone around southern residents to 1,000 yards – approximately one-half nautical mile – for all vessels.

When SB 5371 was introduced to address this issue, it also raised a new dilemma: how to distinguish a transient orca from an endangered southern resident.

A transient orca’s white patches are solid, while a southern resident’s white patches have black notches. A transient’s dorsal fin is taller, straighter and pointier than a southern resident’s curvier fin. Both mammals vary from 20 to 30 feet in length, but a transient male is usually five feet longer than a southern resident male (which is normally 20 to 26 feet), while a transient female is usually three feet longer than a southern resident female (18 to 22 feet).

“Can you see a whale from a thousand yards away?” asked Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, at a March 15 House Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the topic.

“It’s very difficult,” replied Capt. Myers.

Chapman responded: “There’s no way I could see a whale at a thousand yards … In essence, this creates a whole bunch of criminals.”

Watson said the solution is actually pretty simple: “If you’re not sure what orca it is, treat it like a southern resident.”

Clarifies that this bill concerns recreational boating, as professional whale watch vessels have been staying 1,000 yards away since 2021.

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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8