State House passes bill to protect endangered southern resident orcas

The Washington State House passed a bill to protect the Salish Sea endangered orcas on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 5371 protects southern resident orcas by establishing a 1,000-yard setback for recreational vessels, said Washington State House Democrats in a news release. This will bring recreational boats under the same law as commercial whale-watching boats.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Liz Lovelett and Rep. Debra Lekanoff, passed with 96 saying yes, one no, and one absent. It will now go to the Senate for concurrence and then Gov. Inslee for final approval.

The bill will take effect in January 2025.

“The passage of this bill will position Washington State as a national leader in the protection of endangered species and the promotion of sustainable tourism,” said the news release.

Lekanoff is a member of the Tlingit and Aleut Tribes. She has been a long-time advocate for protecting orcas, or qalʼqaləx̌ič in the Coast Salish Lushootseed language, and sees the passage of the bill as a triumph for the Salish Sea ecosystem and Native American Tribes, according to the news release.

“This is a momentous occasion for our state and the protection of our marine life,” Lekanoff said. “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.”

According to Oceana, there are only 73 southern resident orcas left. Oceana said vessels threaten the whales and their prey.

“Southern Resident killer whales are threatened by vessel noise and interactions, contaminants, and lack of available prey,” said Oceana. “Of these threats, a lack of their favorite prey — Chinook salmon — is the number one threat to the recovery of the Southern Residents. Over two-thirds of the orcas’ pregnancies failed between 2008 and 2014 because moms were not getting enough salmon to eat.”

In November 2022 the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife reported how vessel noise affects the orcas. The WDFW recommended a 1,000-yard buffer and to distinguish between motorized commercial whale watching and non-motorized, guided paddle tours.

SB 5371 will also “modify the commercial whale watching business license fees, eliminate certain fees, and create paddle tour business and paddle guide licenses with associated fees in place of kayak guide licenses, which will be distinct from commercial whale watching business licenses. It will also modify enforcement provisions regarding unlawful commercial whale watching in the first degree and create enforcement provisions regarding conducting paddle tours,” said the news release.

Lovelett explained that the bill is not just about protecting the orcas, but also the ecosystem.

“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, “ said Lovelett. “We are also creating new opportunities for sustainable tourism that respects the natural environment and supports local businesses.”