New Study Shows Commercial Whale Watching Reduces Vessel Incidents Near Killer Whales in Washington State

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New Study Shows Commercial Whale Watching Reduces Vessel Incidents Near Killer Whales in Washington State

Submitted by the Orca Behavior Institute.

The Orca Behavior Institute has published a new study in the journal Marine Policy demonstrating that the presence of commercial whale-watching vessels reduces vessel rule violations in proximity to killer whales in Washington state. This study was undertaken in response to new vessel regulations and the Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Scheme which came into effect in January 2021, and is published alongside the WDFW’s first biennial review of the rules.

“We are concerned that the commercial whale-watching license program, as written, may actually harm endangered southern residents,” said Monika Wieland Shields, director of the Orca Behavior Institute and author of the study. “Currently, whale-watching vessels have stricter rules than private pleasure craft, and the result is that we’re seeing more speed and distance violations near whales as a result.”

The study, based on data collection that took place from May to October 2021, demonstrates that the average number of rule breaches by private vessels drops by around 6.60 per hour in the absence of commercial vessels whale watching at 2.65 per hour when commercial guard vessels are present. “Whale-watching operators are professional drivers who demonstrate the correct speed and distance rules to other boaters,” Shields explained. “They also alert private vessels to the presence of the whales, sometimes just by being there, but also by actively honking or waving whale flags to get their attention before a violation occurs.”

All vessels in Washington’s inland waters are required by law to stay more than 300 yards away from southern resident killer whales and reduce speed to less than 7 knots within ½ nautical mile of whales. The licensing program, however, only allows commercial whale-watching vessels this opportunity to observe for four hours a day in July, August and September. The rest of the year, they are required to stay within ½ nautical mile of southern resident killer whales, a restriction that only applies to them.

This study provides the first peer-reviewed empirical evidence of the sentinel effect played by commercial whale-watching vessels, a key issue that has been debated when developing licensing rules. As required, the WDFW is currently conducting its first regulatory effectiveness review. This study was submitted in response to their call for new data, and the public inquiry into the Vessel Regulatory Review is open until 30 September.

The Orca Behavior Institute is a non-profit research group based on San Juan Island, WA. They conduct non-invasive behavioral and acoustic research on Southern Resident Killer Whales and Bigg’s Killer Whales.

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