For Immediate Release, December 18, 2020


Sophia Ressler, (206) 399-4004,

Washington Finalizes Rules to Better Protect Orcas From Vessel Noise

Commercial Whale-watching Vessels Face New Restrictions

SEATTLE— Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission voted today to finalize new rules that will apply to the state’s commercial whale-watching vessels. While the rules seek to protect endangered Southern Resident killer whales from vessel noise and disturbance from whale-watching boats, they still allow for watching during the summer months when the whales are foraging in the Salish Sea.

“These new rules don’t go far enough to protect the critically endangered Southern Residents,” said Sophia Ressler, a staff attorney and Washington wildlife advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to do everything we can to give these iconic orcas the quiet waters they need to forage for food.”

In 2019 the Washington state legislature passed a bill requiring the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to make rules to regulate and license the commercial whale-watching industry. Science shows that vessel noise affects the whales’ ability to communicate, makes it more difficult to find food, and causes the whales to expend more energy to forage.

The new rules establish restrictions that will confine motorized commercial whale-watching vessels to view the Southern Residents during specific months and at certain times. The rule also codifies a no-go zone off the west side of San Juan Island, restricting all commercial whale-watching vessel traffic in that important foraging area.

“People love these orcas and want to see them, and these reasonable new rules will help prevent us from loving them to death, but were a missed opportunity to better protect them. It’s the very least the department can do to make sure these orcas survive for generations to come,” said Ressler. “These rules are a step in protecting this iconic species, but we can do more.”

The science panel convened for this process suggested the department choose a precautionary approach in the drafting of these rules. In response to pressure from the whale-watching industry, which refuses to stop watching the endangered Southern Residents, the department instead chose to allow three vessels at a time around the orcas at specific hours during the months of July, August and September.

Fleets in British Columbia, by contrast, have voluntarily stopped watching the orcas, and an economic analysis done on these rules found no significant impact to the industry.

Southern Resident killer whales are a specific ecotype of orcas native to the Salish Sea that migrates as far south at San Francisco Bay. The orcas feed exclusively on fish, primarily Chinook salmon. With the extreme decline in Chinook runs, the Southern Resident population has plummeted.

As of the last official count, there were only 74 orcas, the lowest population in 40 years. Two calves born in 2020 and another pregnant orca are reason to celebrate, but this population remains in dire circumstances without the restoration of Chinook salmon runs and the ability to forage for food unimpeded by noise.

Southern Resident orcas. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.