Two men, including one from Mercer Island, have been issued tickets by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for violating a protected species by allegedly flying their drones too close to orca whales.
According to Fish and Wildlife officers, the drone piloted by Douglas Shih of Mercer Island and the drone piloted by a man from California were both within 10 yards of a pod of resident killer whales in the Haro Strait, west of San Juan Island, on Aug. 16. Washington state law requires "vessels" and "other objects" to stay at least 200 yards away, so both drone pilots received tickets. Shih's ticket was for $1,025.
Since early June, five recreational boaters have been cited for orca protection violations. Shih and the man from California received the first tickets issued for drone-related violations.
“We take it very seriously. These orcas are key to the local economy,” Sgt Russ Mullins of Fish and Wildlife told KIRO 7 earlier this summer. “They’re of intrinsic value to millions of people. We need to be very aggressive and err on the side of caution when protecting these whales."
Doug Shih, who owns Aerial Photography Seattle, declined KIRO 7's invitation for an on-camera interview but said he would never want to hurt or distract the orcas. Shih said that he’s very aware of the laws to keep boats away --- and that he always complies. But he believes the law is not clear when it comes to drones.
NOAA marine biologist Lynne Barre said the law is clear, and should definitely include drones because the unmanned aircraft can pose a risk to the orcas' safety and potentially change their behavior. “Enforcement of our rules is very important,” Barre told KIRO 7. “We need good compliance to make sure that wildlife viewing is done responsibly and without an impact to the whales.