Reviewing the new rules for boating around orcas
For up-to-date information about boating around orcas, please visit Be Whale Wise.
With summer in full swing and the re-opening of many outdoor activities throughout the Puget Sound region, boaters are heading out on the water to enjoy the nice weather. And soon the Southern Resident orcas should return to Puget Sound too for their summer foraging.
That means it’s a good time to review the new rules about operating boats near orcas.
In May 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law new regulations about operating vessels near Southern Resident orcas:
- Boats to stay 300 yards from Southern Resident orcas or killer whales on either side.
- Boats to stay 400 yards out of Southern Resident orca’s path/in front and behind the whales
- Boats to go slow (<7 knots) within ½ mile of Southern Resident orcas
- Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.
- Boats to stay 100 yards from all other marine mammals (e.g. humpback whales, gray whales, sea lions and seals).
Boaters can learn more about the laws and additional guidelines through Be Whale Wise. New guidelines also urge the use of the Whale Warning Flag, intended to help boaters shift their behavior around whales and in waters that whales frequent.
The new regulations are intended to help improve conditions for Southern Resident orcas in Puget Sound.
Jessica Stocking, marine endangered species lead biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), explained how the new rules will benefit orcas. “Orcas use sonar to communicate with each other and to find food, so extra underwater sounds can be detrimental to their daily activities,” she said. “There are three factors identified as responsible for the Southern Resident Killer Whale’s decline: quantity and quality of food, pollutants in the water, and vessel noise and disturbance. WDFW is committed to conserving and protecting these orcas and is working tirelessly to support their return from the brink of extinction. Part of this work includes ramping up outreach, engagement, and enforcement efforts to spread awareness about limiting the speed and number of boats around the orcas, which has been shown to reduce noise underwater.”
In 2019, a high percentage of the reported boating violations that happened near Southern Resident orcas had to do with boaters going too fast when in the same area as orcas. The new emphasis for boaters to go slower than 7 knots when within a half mile of orcas is intended to keep folks mindful of giving orcas space, keeping waters quiet, and reducing the possibility of their vessels striking orcas.
“Orcas travel in groups and can change direction and surface unexpectedly, and slowing down decreases the risk of contact,” Stocking said. “Another important reason to slow down is that faster boats are generally louder, and noise disrupts orcas’ ability to find food and socialize. Just as you and I might have to yell to talk to each other in a crowded restaurant, orcas raise their voices with boats nearby. By slowing down and giving these whales some extra space, boaters are taking part in small actions that can have a big impact in helping to quiet the waters and support killer whale protections.”
Stocking mentioned that WDFW has also assembled an advisory committee to craft rules associated with a commercial whale watching licensing program that will go into effect in 2021. To learn more about the process, visit WDFW’s page on the commercial whale-watching licensing program.