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“Be Whale Wise” information is written to cover this year’s requirements while also pointing to future, stricter rules for recreational boaters. The Whale Warning Flag can be used by any boater to alert others to the presence of whales. // Images: Be Whale Wise consortium

Recreational boaters play an important role in protecting endangered killer whales, officials say

Noise and disturbance from boats can disrupt the normal hunting behaviors of killer whales, according to marine mammal experts. Now, with southern resident orcas facing extinction, every disruption becomes a concern, they say.

Such is the thinking behind a new state law designed to better protect the endangered whales by further limiting how close recreational boaters can approach the animals. The law goes into effect next January, but many orca supporters are calling on boaters to voluntarily increase their viewing distance now.

Photograph of a group of Southern Resident killer whales chasing a salmon, collected during health research with a drone flying non-invasively at >100ft. Credit: Holly Fearnbach from SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3), John Durban, formerly with NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and Lance Barrett-Lennard from the Ocean Wise Research Institute. Research authorized by NMFS permit #19091.
A group of southern resident killer whales chase a salmon during a scientific drone survey. // Photo: SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3), authorized under NMFS permit #19091.

The law, approved last year by the Legislature, will require recreational boaters in Washington to stay 1,000 yards back from the fish-eating southern residents, which were once common in our inland waterways. As salmon runs decline, the whales are seen less often, often staying in the open ocean. Researchers predict that the population will go extinct without significant changes — such as increasing their food supply and enhancing their hunting success.

The current law requires recreational boaters to keep a distance of at least 400 yards in front of the southern residents and 300 yards to the sides. The 1,000-yard rule, which already applies for the most part to commercial whale-watching boats, goes into effect for recreational boaters on Jan. 1, 2025.

Voluntary compliance

An organized campaign called “Give Them Space” is calling on all boaters to “take the pledge” and comply voluntarily before the law goes into effect.

“Our goal is that every boater in Puget Sound and throughout the southern resident orcas’ range will take this pledge and do their part to give the whales the space they need, even before it is required,” said Rein Attemann of Washington Conservation Action in a press release. “Boaters have a unique opportunity to play a role in the southern residents’ recovery, simply by avoiding them while at sea and making it easier for the whales to find and catch their prey.”

The southern resident population has dwindled to 74 animals, including nine calves under 5 years old.

“The future of the population is here,” said Donna Sandstrom, director of The Whale Trail and a leader in the campaign. “Their ability to survive and thrive into adulthood depends on the actions that we take today.”

Logo for “Give them space! — take the pledge” campaign

The campaign is sponsored by five environmentally minded organizations. Organizers ask boaters and anyone else to sign the pledge by going to the “Give them space” website. One can also sign up for a free newsletter that reports on the progress of the campaign.

In years gone by, when salmon were more plentiful, the whales could hunt freely and get enough food to eat even when the noise from boats hampered their echolocation, which is their amazing ability to locate prey by sending out high-pitched sounds and listening for sound waves bouncing back. But when fish are hard to find, boats are no longer insignificant when orcas are hunting for food, according to experts.

Research findings

Two years ago, I reported on a conference that included some 40 presentations from marine mammal biologists who talked about how vessel noise and disturbance affects the whales. The lack of adequate prey can impair body condition, reproduction and survival, according to Rob Williams, co-founder and chief scientist at Ocean Initiative, a Seattle-based research group. Those effects are exacerbated by the toxic chemicals consumed when eating contaminated Chinook, their primary prey, he said.

A digital acoustic recording tag attached to a killer whale with suction cups helped to measure vessel noise reaching the whales. // Photo: NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center under NOAA research permit No.781-1824 and 16163

Noise, Williams explained, tends to reduce prey availability more than the depleted number of salmon alone might indicate. “If there is not enough salmon available in the environment, vessel noise and disturbance will reduce the amount of prey that is accessible to the whales,” he said. “The population consequences of noise will look just like an exaggerated effect of prey limitation.”

One fascinating study was conducted by placing microphones on killer whales and observing their behaviors and the sounds they made when boats were present. Lead researcher Marla Holt with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center found that the whales made fewer foraging dives and spent less time in productive foraging when vessels were closer. Deep dives tended to last longer, suggesting that vessel noise led to less productive hunting. See her report in Marine Environmental Research, 2021.

Legislators supporting the bill to increase distance for recreational vessels said it was essential to bolster protections for the southern residents to give the whales a chance for survival. Increasing the viewing distance for recreational boaters was seen as bringing all whale watchers into conformance with the same standard. Legislators also stressed that public education would be critical and more important than strict enforcement with citations and fines. The legislation, in fact, requires a diverse work group of interested parties to come together to assess the effects of the law. It also requires “intensive outreach and education” leading up to the effective date in January.

The law was passed with near-unanimous support in the House (95-2), but Senate approval was divided along party lines (30-18). All but one Democrat voted in favor of the new restrictions. On the opposing side, Democrat Kevin Van De Wege of Lake Sutherland joined all but two Republicans in voting against the bill, SB 5371. Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, and Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, were the Republicans voting in support of it.

Advisory group

The Orca Regulations Communications Advisory (ORCA) Group, created by the legislation, held its first public workshop last week to make sure that the group is addressing questions and concerns about how the law will be applied. The questions were similar to those raised by skeptical lawmakers during legislative hearings.

For one thing, average recreational boaters are wondering how they can tell when they are 1,000 yards away from a group of killer whales. For another thing, if you do stay 1,000 yards away, how are you going to determine if they are the fish-eating resident orcas or the marine-mammal-eating Bigg’s, or transient, orcas? The Bigg’s whales are not subject to the new stricter limitations. While there are no easy answers, there were numerous suggestions, giving the advisory group plenty to think about over the next few months.

Aaron Barnett of Washington Sea Grant uses a card developed to help boaters estimate a distance of 400 yards from killer whales. A new card is proposed to estimate 1,000 yards. // Photo: Cindy Brooks, Washington Sea Grant

The problem of determining distance is much the same as with the current restrictions, although the new law won’t allow recreational boats to get closer than commercial whale-watching boats. So one idea for boaters is to follow the lead of the professionals, who are likely to be more experienced in judging distance and may have instruments to measure distance with some precision. For participants in “Give them space — take the pledge,” that would be a prudent approach even now.

How to tell southern residents from Bigg’s is always difficult, even without the problem of distance. Communications among whale watchers may provide enough identification of specific whales to allow a closer approach to the Bigg’s. But when in doubt the best advice, officials say, is to stay back 1,000 yards from any killer whale. That distance is about one-half nautical mile or 0.57 statute mile — a little more than eight football fields with the end zones included.

Besides marine radios, a new smart-phone app provides real-time information about the location of all sorts of whales in the Puget Sound region. It also allows boaters to report on the whales they see. The app is called Whale Alert. Depending on who is reporting, it may distinguish between residents and Bigg’s killer whales. Orca Network’s Facebook page also provides ongoing reports about the location of whales. Sources of information may come from land-based observers, researchers, whale watchers or even casual boaters who accidentally find themselves among a group of orcas.

The new rules say that any boater who inadvertently gets too close to the southern residents should slowly move away to 1,000 yards if they are farther than 400 feet when they first see the whales. If they are within 400 feet, they are supposed to turn off their motors or disengage their transmissions and drift until the whales are out of range. Of course, exceptions are allowed for safety and special situations. After all, nobody expects a boater to drift into the shore or onto a rocky reef or collide with another vessel. State enforcement officers are directed to provide education first and come down only on blatant abusers of the law.

Another tool for judging distance could be available before the end of the year, according to Aaron Barnett, environmental outreach specialist with Washington Sea Grant. It’s a small, hand-held card that you hold at arm’s length and compare a printed picture of an orca’s dorsal fin with what you can see in the distance. Thousands were printed for the 400-foot rule and were quickly snatched up by boaters. Tests with radar and a laser rangefinder found that the cards were reasonably accurate, Aaron said. He hopes to print up new cards with the 1,000-foot distance in mind.

“Because of so many potential variables on the water — such as height of eye, weather or whatever — we tell people that it gives you a ballpark (estimate),” Aaron said in an email. “I was a navigator during my time in the U.S. Coast Guard and used a sextant quite a bit. I learned that the most important thing was to know the instrument error and external factors for celestial sites. I don’t think the average boater thinks of those things, so we use the rangefinder (card) as both an educational and a usable tool.”

Changing conditions

As knowledge of orca locations expands, concerns about people knowing the location of the whales has been shifting, according to Tara Galuska, the governor’s orca recovery coordinator. At one time, many people believed that the southern residents were best protected when boaters did not know their location. Now, a growing number of people believe it is best that boaters do know where the whales are, so they can maintain their distance and reduce their effects on the endangered animals, she said.

Knowing the location of orcas in Puget Sound allows more people to safely watch the whales from shore. Viewing locations can be found on maps provided by Orca Network and by The Whale Trail.

Among the commercial whale-watching fleet, the southern residents no longer get much attention, according to Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

A whale-watching boat affiliated with the Pacific Whale Watch Association observes Bigg’s killer whales from a distance. // Photo Erin Gless, PWWA

“We have not been allowed to watch them since 2019 in Canadian waters from any distance, through Transport Canada’s Sustainable Whale Watchers Authorization program, and professional whale watchers have had to stay 1,000 yards from SRKW in Washington since 2021, through the WDFW Commercial Whale Watching License Program,” she told me in an email. “We occasionally come across them accidentally, report it, and leave.

“If on the Washington side, we will sometimes view from 1,000 (yards), basically looking at distant fins and providing guests with educational messaging about SRKW, but it’s not very often at all,” she said. Instead, guests aboard whale-watching boats can expect to see Bigg’s orcas, which have become much more prevalent than residents, along with humpback, gray and minke whales.

Under federal law, boaters must stay at least 200 yards from all orcas and 100 yards from all other whales. State law is stricter for southern residents at this time.

A special app for PWWA members recorded 322 days last year when Bigg’s killer whales were reported, compared to 111 days for southern residents. Humpbacks were reported on 309 days, minkes on 156 days and grays on 131 days, according to the association’s 2023 annual report on sightings and sentinel actions.

Public education

As the effective date of the new law approaches, Washington state residents can expect to see more educational materials on social media along with advertising in print publications, videos and even broadcast, said Ben Anderson, communications manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Outreach also includes informational tables at festivals and other events. This year, the primary focus has been on the existing rules while pointing out that changes are coming, as shown in the advertising piece at the top of this page. It’s a bit of a mixed message, Ben acknowledged, considering mandatory rules in existing law, encouragement to increase distance, and the need to know that greater legal restrictions are coming next year.

Capt. Alan Myers of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spells out current and future whale-watching rules.

One video that offers strong advice to boaters has been streaming online as well as during spots on Comcast cable.

“We’ve been encouraging all boaters to give killer whales 1,000 yards of space for several years in conjunction with rules requiring commercial whale-watching vessels to maintain that distance,” Ben noted, referring to news releases that have reported when specific killer whales have been seen in dire condition.

Based on suggestions from the ORCA group, WDFW has been testing the effectiveness of various messages that will go out to boaters in a variety of ways before the end of the year. At the same time, the agency will need to track down and remove materials that discuss the 300- and 400-foot distances that will no longer apply.

The advisory group has received a large number of suggestions about how to get the word out, and more discussions are planned before the group issues its recommendations in September. The next meeting will be Aug 20 with registration forthcoming, according to the group’s calendar.

A second and final public workshop is scheduled for Sept. 12, and participants may sign up on the Zoom registration page.

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