WA lawmakers pass whale watching ban aimed at helping orcas

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Lawmakers have denied Gov. Jay Inslee’s attempt to force commercial whale-watching boats to keep an additional distance from three groups of orcas that summer in the waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea between Washington and Canada.

In doing so, they rejected a key recommendation supported by the majority of the nearly 50 researchers, state and tribal officials and others who served on the Southern Resident Orca Task Force.

“The task force really felt this was essential,” said task force co-chair Stephanie Solien, who is also a civic activist and vice chair of the board of directors of the Puget Sound Partnership, an agency. State. “We felt that a temporary moratorium…would give them some kind of respite, from the constant noise and interference that science shows they experience when surrounded by whale-watching boats.”

Scientists say the noise from boat engines interferes with the whales’ ability to find their favorite prey, Chinook salmon, through echolocation. This biological sonar allows killer whales to create a sound map of their surroundings as they emit a series of clicks by moving air between the nasal sacs near their vent. When these clicks hit objects such as a fish and bounce off a listening orca, the whales can determine the precise distance and location of that object – like a human listening to an echo.

Bills introduced early in the legislative session would have banned commercial whale watchers from approaching a southern resident orca closer than 650 meters until 2023. Some whale watching industry supporters have called that of a de facto prohibition to observe killer whales. Currently, whale-watching boats and other vessels must stay 200 meters away from killer whales.

The sponsors of the bill have lifted the moratorium on surrogate bills in both houses.

“I didn’t think it was necessary,” said Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, the primary sponsor of the original House bill, HB 1580.

Blake said public testimony in the House persuaded him to remove the 650-meter limit from his bill, as did private discussions with conservationists and compliance industry advocates. whales. He also learned that the presence of the commercial orca-watching fleet alerts the crews of other ships. that killer whales are nearby, which reinforces the need to cross water with caution.

“We would lose that if we shut them down,” Blake said in an interview.

Shane Aggergaard, a whale-watching boat captain and entrepreneur, made a similar argument to the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee in a February 12 hearing on the Senate version of the bill, SB 5577.

“If you have a moratorium, there won’t be any boats there to set an example,” Aggergaard told the committee. “You take us, we can’t put enough enforcement in place to protect these animals.”

The Pacific Whale Watch Association has featured orca-watching boats as warning tools for pleasure, boating, and military vessels in a special addendum to the Orca Task Force. final list of recommendations released in November. The association also said it provided information about the sightings to the Center for Whale Research, a nonprofit orca study and conservation group.

“The whale watching industry cares about these killer whales, and they are active in our task force,” Solien said. “But they weren’t okay with it [moratorium] approach, and they were able to get the support of the Legislative Assembly to withdraw this suspension.”

Senator Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, lead sponsor of the Senate bill, said she removed the 650-yard limit from her bill because “we didn’t want to destroy the industry of whale watching”. She said the industry is “building public support to save the killer whales, and that’s…part of the economy of our region.”

“We also believe that if whale watching boats behave responsibly, [then] they set up the pad and the other boats follow,” Rolfes said.

Additionally, she said “most of the science indicated you could get closer if you went slow,” as the bill says.

The legislation enjoyed strong bipartisan support in both houses, with the House bill passing 78-20 in the House and the Senate version passing 46-3. House Democratic leaders plan to pass the Senate version and send it to Inslee.

House Republican Leader JT Wilcox, R-Yelm, voted for HB 1580. “I probably wouldn’t support a total ban [on orca watching]”, he said in an interview. “That’s why I supported the compromise.”

“To say you can have a boat out there that’s fishing, or a ferry that’s carrying people, but you can’t have somebody that’s operating a boat and contributing to the economy, lots of people who want to look through their twins an orca, that sounds silly,” he said.

In contrast, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, chairman of the House Environment and Energy Committee, said he “would have broadly supported a temporary suspension to ensure that we protect the most possible” the whales.

“It was clear to me that it had no support to pass,” he said. “I’m never interested in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, knowing how progressive the legislative process can be.”

Although there are scientists and environmental activists who see the value of orca-watching vessels, at least one supported the original version of the Senate and House bills that contained the moratorium. Todd Hass, special projects liaison at Puget Sound Partnership, told the Feb. 12 Senate committee hearing that noise pollution is a serious problem.

“Why do we need to calm the waters? Because killer whales are highly auditory animals and derive generally significant benefits from using sound-based signaling and hearing, rather than vision,” said Hass, who holds a Ph.D. in marine ecology and studied acoustic communication.

The Orca Task Force and Inslee’s moratorium recommendation only applied to southern resident orcas; other species, including Bigg’s killer whales (also called transients), were exempt. Transient killer whales eat marine mammals like seals, and their populations are much healthier: some 250 visited the Salish Sea in Washington and British Columbia last year. By contrast, Puget Sound’s resident fish-eating killer whales are down to just 75, compared to an estimated historical population of around 200.

Olympia lawmakers retained many of the measures recommended by the task force to reduce noise for southern resident killer whales. The bill’s provisions require boats to observe a “slow” zone of half a nautical mile in any direction from a southern resident killer whale; prohibit people from placing ships less than 400 meters behind an orca; and prohibit steering a ship or other object within 300 yards of an orca.

Under current law, ships are prohibited from approaching within 200 yards of an orca and from positioning a ship in the path of an orca at any point within 400 yards.

Senate legislation, which lawmakers plan to send to Inslee, would also introduce a commercial whale-watching license, which will be required of all commercial whale-watching operators.

The Senate bill is in the House Appropriations Committee and could receive a vote of approval from the committee on Monday. It would then go to the Rules Committee, which would decide when to schedule it for a vote in the House that would send the legislation to Inslee. The governor should sign it.

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