New whale-watching restrictions enacted to protect southern resident orcas

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New rules that significantly restrict whale watching of endangered southern resident orcas have been passed by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The rules include a mandatory no-go zone for commercial whale-watching tours along the west side of San Juan Island year-round, except for a 100-meter-wide corridor next to the shore. for commercial kayak tours.

The rules also mandate a three-month season, from July to September, when commercial viewing of endangered killer whales by motorized tours at a distance of less than half a nautical mile is limited to two daily two-hour periods. Sighting during these windows was further limited to three tour boats per group of orcas at a time.

Supervision of calves under one year old is prohibited. If vulnerable orcas, such as skinny, sick or injured animals, are discovered in the population, they could also be banned from visits by the establishment of emergency rules.

The rules also outline license application processes for commercial whale watching as well as reporting and training requirements.

Boaters under existing rules must stay at least 300 meters away from southern resident killer whales and at least 400 meters out of their way or behind whales. They must also reduce their speed to 7 knots within half a mile of the southern resident killer whales.

Listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2005, there are only 74 southern resident killer whales left. The main risks identified so far for their survival include noise and disturbance from ships; a lack of adequate and quality Chinook salmon; and pollutants.

The rules adopted Friday were developed over several years and created the first state licensing system for the industry.

The rules aim to reduce the impact of noise and disturbance from ships on orcas’ ability to feed, rest and socialize. Orcas hunt by sound. Underwater noise and boat disturbances make it harder for them to find already scarce food. The noise also causes orcas to expend more energy to communicate with each other, raising their voices to be heard.

The rules will come into effect in early 2021 and will only affect sightings of endangered southern resident orcas. Visits by humpback and gray whales and the much more numerous visiting whales, or Bigg’s killer whales, can continue as before.

More than 4,000 people have contacted the commission to support stricter whale watching rules to protect southern residents. Only about 200 comments opposed stricter regulations.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association issued a press release on Monday saying the new rules would hamper tour operators’ ability to play a “watchdog role” on the water for at-risk whales.

The non-profit organization Orca Conservancy also argued that the new rules will expose whales to more noise from ignorant boaters and create a greater risk of collision with ships due to the reduction in professional excursions d whale watching.

However, a report on the best available science on the effect of committee visits on acoustics and disturbances at the Washington State Academy of Sciences found that there were not enough evidence that visits play a sentinel role. More research is needed to determine whether the tours benefit the whales as operators claim – or are actually a magnet for more noise and disturbance, the academy found.

The disturbance is consecutive, according to a report prepared for the commission by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

Commercial whale-watching boats account for more than half of boats in close proximity to orcas, and the effect of vessel presence increases with the number of boats, the department found.

The only vote against the new rules came from a commissioner who wanted only one boat allowed in the presence of orcas at a time, rather than three.

Amy Windrope, deputy director of the WDFW, said the rule-making process was science-based and balanced the value of the whale watching industry with continuing to provide access to whale watching. by boat while providing more quiet time for southern residents.

“They help with education and connecting people with southern residents, and this rule keeps that going,” Windrope said. Land-based whale watching on the Whale Trail also provides viewing opportunities throughout the southern residents’ foraging range, she noted.

Tim Regan, who retired in 2013 after 13 years as scientific director and then executive director of the US Marine Mammal Commission, said there was more than enough science to justify the new restrictions.

The whale watching industry has on average continued to increase its profitability, according to economic analysis conducted to inform the rule-making process, and southern residents account for only a small portion of the activity touristic.

“Everything suggests it’s still a viable industry, with these restrictions,” Regan said. “That’s what conservation is supposed to do. We have to change the way we behave. »

The regulations mark a shift to a more cautious approach, Regan noted, in his mind a good thing for a species at high risk of extinction.

“In many ways, I would have liked to see an even stronger result,” Regan said. “But I would say the commission did its job and deserves a lot of credit for stepping back and playing a leadership role.”

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