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Lawmakers vote to keep boaters 1,000 yards from southern resident orcas in Washington

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: April 21, 2023, 7:22am

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers voted to require all boaters to stay a minimum of 1,000 yards away from endangered southern resident orcas in Washington waters.

Senate Bill 5371 is now awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature. Recreational boaters currently must stay 400 yards from the orcas.

A January 2021 study showed female southern resident orcas often stop hunting when boats come within 400 yards. Studies have also shown the southern residents hunt differently than the genetically similar northern resident orcas that live farther north, likely, in part, because of noise.

Two-thirds of southern resident pregnancies end in loss because of a lack of food. Chinook salmon, their prey of choice, face human-made barriers, pollutants, and hungry seals and sea lions. The orcas struggle to hunt and communicate with each other because boats generate so much racket, much of it in the same sonic sweet spot orcas use to hunt and communicate.

The population continues to decline. The latest Center for Whale Research census tallied 73.

The bill doesn’t change much for commercial whale-watching boats, which already had to stay 1,000 yards away from the orcas for nine months of the year.

The Legislature tasked the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees the Department of Fish and Wildlife, to implement and manage whale-watching rules. When first updating the buffer for commercial whale-watching boats, the state was largely met with support. More than 4,000 people contacted the commission in support of stricter rules to protect the southern residents. About 200 comments opposed tougher regulations.

DFW last year released a report recommending the Legislature increase the buffer for all boats to 1,000 yards.

“And the Department of Fish and Wildlife did a review of the latest science and found that the current 300 or 400 yards is not enough to minimize those impacts on their foraging,” said Nora Nickum, senior ocean policy manager for the Seattle Aquarium, who helped draft the bill.

The report summarized the existing research, including a study that revealed boats within 1,640 yards, “even those operating at just 1-2 knots,” affected the southern residents’ hunting success.

“I think it’s just clear that these whales are struggling and they need the best chance they can have to catch salmon and share that with their families,” Nickum said. “This change will directly improve their odds of catching fish and helping their young ones thrive.”

The legislation would not change the regulations around approaching healthier populations such as Bigg’s killer whales, humpback whales, gray whales or any other whale species in the area.

Southern resident orcas have rounded tips on their dorsal fins, while transient orcas have pointier dorsal fins. The southern residents also often have some black splotches on their dorsal saddles, or patches below their fin, while transient orcas have more uniformly white dorsal saddles.

If signed into law, the buffer wouldn’t go into effect until 2025. Boaters who violate the buffer could receive a natural resource infraction that comes with a $500 fine.

Boaters should learn what 1,000 yards looks like and respect the buffer, said Donna Sandstrom, director of the Whale Trail. Boaters can take a pledge at givethemspace.org to stay 1,000 yards away from the southern residents.

Shore-based whale watching on the Whale Trail also provides viewing opportunities throughout the southern residents’ foraging range.

Meanwhile, bills aimed at helping out the threatened salmon that orcas feed on made small gains this session.

Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, got a bill to Inslee’s desk that would allow Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups to continue their work with limited liability.

These nonprofit groups were created by the state to join with local communities and other stakeholders to lead salmon recovery projects. The groups have completed an estimated 4,500 projects over the years, but have recently struggled to get insurance.

If the bill is signed into law, it would ensure these groups are not held liable for property damages as a result of their projects, “unless the damage is due to acts or omissions constituting gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.”

The project has to be designed by experts such as engineers and geologists, and be designed to withstand 100-year floods, among other matters, to be covered by the law. It would only apply to projects reviewed by the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board.

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“We have salmon enhancement groups that are citizen-driven all over the state,” Lekanoff said. “So we’re really excited to be able to continue having citizens be part of the salmon recovery world.”

Legislation that would help protect and increase riparian areas — the trees and shrubs along rivers and streams critical to keeping flows shaded and cool, filtering stormwater runoff and providing woody debris for fish — didn’t make it out of the Legislature, again.

The 2022 buffer bill, or Lorraine Loomis Act, would’ve required public and private land owners with land along newly designated “riparian protective zones” to keep them planted with trees and shrubs. The bill proposed the zones cover 100 feet on either side of a river or stream in areas that weren’t already forested.

It died last session after farmers argued that they would lose valuable land for crops.

Two similar bills were introduced this session that would’ve established a riparian grant fund, to encourage voluntary protection and restoration of these areas. One was largely shaped in partnership by tribes and the Washington Farm Bureau.

But it didn’t make it out of the House Capital Budget Committee. Instead, lawmakers settled on $25 million for salmon recovery that, if included in the final budget, could help keep the conversations going.

“At the end of the day, it’s a win-win, because the tribes and the agricultural community will still continue to work together on riparian buffers, and good healthy farmland,” Lekanoff said.

Lekanoff said she plans to continue working on bills that clarify relationships among various federal, tribal, state and local agencies in salmon recovery work and create better statewide planning.