Approved rules could harm whale-watching tours

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PORT TOWNSEND – Tougher industry regulations set to come into force in commercial whale watching sector in 2021 to protect Southern Resident orcas ignore role tour operators play in conservation, fail to regulate major producers noise and do nothing to increase salmon production for endangered whales, tour operators said.

Under rules approved by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission earlier this month, commercial whale-watching businesses can observe southern resident orcas for two-hour periods from 10 a.m. to noon and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily from July to September.

The rules limit the number of commercial vessels to three within half a mile of a pod of whales and provide penalties for violations.

Tours for non-resident orcas, also called transient Biggs Orcas, and for filter-feeding baleen whales, such as humpback, gray and minke whales, are not affected by the new regulations.

Pete Hanke, operator of the Puget Sound Express whale-watching company in Port Townsend and Edmonds, said the presence of whale-watching boats guides commercial shipping, recreational and military boat traffic near southern residents.

“It’s having an effect,” Hanke said at a Senate committee meeting earlier this month. “It slows down the boats. It deflects boats. They know there is something going on in the water when they see a whale watching boat there.

“And to get to the idea that by just allowing whales to swim around the Salish Sea, what they’re actually going to do is allow other boaters – inadvertently, for the most part – to run right over these killers. whales.”

The Pacific Whale Watch Association, based in Friday Harbor, tracked the “sentinel actions” of commercial whale-watching excursions from July to September this year, recording 293 incidents such as calling ships and notifying the forces of the order on the radio, the signaling of boats or, if need be. , preventing a high-speed vessel from potentially striking whales.

The new rules would have eliminated 71% of sentinel actions carried out by tour boats during this period, the association estimates.

Washington already had some of the strictest whale-watching regulations in the world before the new rules, with Governor Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force set up in March 2018 to identify ways to protect the population. orcas, up to 74 finally. to count.

“Because of the task force and wanting to do something for the whales, they took us back 300 yards, about three football fields or the length of an aircraft carrier,” Hanke said.

Hanke and Island Adventures, an Anacortes-based whale-watching company that offers tours from Port Angeles, each cited a Port of Vancouver, BC study that attributes 0.6% of noise from ships to whale watching boats.

“If we’re trying to calm the world down for the southern residents, they really haven’t done anything to regulate other sound-producing vessels. [such as] private boaters, freighters, commercial fishing boats, ferries or the military,” Hanke said.

Hanke also referred to the lack of controls placed on research vessels studying the endangered whale population.

Island Adventures Chief Naturalist Erin Gless cited research by boater education group Sound Watch that found 71% of recreational boats in the state are unaware of boating regulations. whale watching regarding distance or speed in proximity to whales.

“Whale-watching boats help mark locations and model the behaviors of other vessels,” Gless said.

“The other boats can see that we are moving slowly, and that calms the environment. And if they’re not there to follow the rules and provide that modeling, it can create a much more cluttered and noisier environment.

Gless called the focus on whale-watching trips “frustrating.”

“In my heart, I believe it’s really hard for the state to go after ferry, fishing, or military traffic, and it’s easier for them to regulate the 20 or so whale-watching boats of Washington,” Gless said.

She referred to one of the task force’s key recommendations to protect southern residents, by increasing the abundance of chinook, the preferred prey of endangered whales.

“That might kind of quiet the clamor to protect the whales, but it really does nothing for the fish,” Gless said. “And when you think of the successes that these other whales like Biggs’ killer whales have had with 100 babies born in the last eight years, or the increase in the number of humpback whales, these whales are all exposed to the same habitat, sea ​​conditions and traffic.”

Hanke said the biggest issue remains the lack of chinook.

“It’s about fish, salmon, and it’s like setting the table for a nice dinner, getting out the fancy silverware, but nobody cooked anything,” Hanke said of the rise in salmon production.

Financially, Gless said Port Angeles-based tours are usually for humpback whales, so she didn’t expect much disruption in terms of scheduling.

Hanke said the potential economic impact of the new rules is difficult to quantify.

“This time of year we have a lot more occurrences of SRKWs entering the [Puget] Sound, so it’s more likely that we’ll see them in the fourth quarter of the year, October through December,” Hanke said.

“And there is this question that if we cannot see them in the fourth quarter, is it financially feasible to continue to take trips during these times? The grays and the hunchbacks are not there. We don’t see many passing orcas either.

“I think it will have a bigger impact on smaller operators in San Juan,” he continued. “They will be prevented from seeing them on tour. And, in the future, I think companies will need a faster platform to find different whales, to find humpback whales off Port Angeles or grays and go see them.

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Sportswriter Michael Carman can be reached at 360-406-0674 or [email protected].

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