New law requires boaters to stay further away from Southern Resident orcas

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A bill that would keep recreational boaters farther away from endangered Puget Sound orcas was signed into law Monday.

The legislation increases the distance that recreational boaters must stay away from Southern Resident killer whales from 300 to 1,000 yards.

“This bill is not just about protecting orcas, it’s about safeguarding our entire marine ecosystem and ensuring that future generations can enjoy the beauty and bounty of the Salish Sea,” state Senator Liz Lovelett (D-40) said in a prepared statement. “We are also creating new opportunities for sustainable tourism that respects the natural environment and supports local businesses.”

But that’s already the rule for professional whale-watching vessels, according to Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

“This bill just helps establish a universal standard that would apply both to our professional whale watch vessels, but now also to recreational boats,” Gless told KIRO Newsradio.

Boaters are only required to stay 200 yards away from “transient” or “Bigg’s” killer whales.

“The shape of their dorsal fins are different,” Gless said when spotting the difference between the various orcas. “Southern Residents tend to have a more rounded dorsal fin, while those Bigg’s killer whales have a more pointy dorsal fin.”

Another way to spot the difference is Southern Residents tend to travel in large, spread-out groups, while transient whales travel in smaller family groups closer together. Gless stated if you’re unsure which group of whales you’ve encountered, lean on the side of caution.

“Just treat them like they’re Southern Resident killer whales and give them that extra space,” she said.

Unlike Bigg’s Killer Whales, which eat seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals, Southern Residents only eat salmon. They rely on echolocation, but the noise from boats can interfere with their ability to find their prey.

Some who testified about the bill have expressed concerns that they might not be able to recognize and stay away from the endangered orca, but Gless claimed she doesn’t expect the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to go after small boaters who accidentally encounter an endangered whale.

“They’re not looking at this as a ‘gotcha,’ " she said. In her view, “the intent of this is to prevent boaters from intentionally harassing and disturbing Southern Resident killer whales, not necessarily preventing a boat from getting home to the dock- or something like that.”

And she said even if you keep Southern Residents at a distance, there are plenty of other types of whales and other wildlife to enjoy.

Lekanoff, a member of the Tlingit and Aleut Tribes, described the passage of the bill as a significant triumph for both the Salish Sea ecosystem and Native American Tribes.

“This is a momentous occasion for our state and the protection of our marine life,” Lekanoff wrote in a press release. “By creating a setback distance from Southern Resident orcas, we are sending a powerful message that we are committed to protecting our marine ecosystems and respecting the cultural heritage of Native American tribes.”

Reports estimate that only 73 southern resident orcas remain in existence, with at least 12 designated as vulnerable.

“Orcas are such an emblematic symbol of Washington state’s ecosystem, but climate change and converging issues like noise pollution, food contaminants, and lack of salmon have worsened the species’ plight for years,” Lovelett said. “It’s crucial that we step in and provide as much support as possible to these iconic animals, and I’m proud of our work this session.”