Bill would restrict whale watching on southern resident orcas

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- A bill that would greatly restrict whale watching of endangered killer whales is making its way through the state capitol.

House Bill 1580 is intended to increase the protection of the southern resident killer whale from boat noise, in order to help the whales find Chinook salmon.

There are only 75 southern resident killer whales left. Vessel disturbance is considered one of the three main threats - along with lack of food and pollution - impacting southern residents.

The bill would:

    Supporters of the bill included representatives from NOAA, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Gov. Jay Inslee's office and the state Department of Natural Resources.

    "Fewer vessels means that the whales are more capable of finding food quickly and wasting less energy," said Amy Windrope with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

    Killer whales emit high-frequency clicks to forage for salmon. Restricting boats may help alleviate the noise in waters crowded by small, personal crafts.

    Representatives from the Pacific Whale Watching Association argued that parts of the bill could hurt a vital industry that brings in roughly $60 million annually to the region's economy. The PWWA has voluntarily instituted some of the strictest policies in the area for boating, representatives said, and recreational boaters often look to whale watching boats for instruction.

    The PWWA already requires captains to travel no faster than 7 knots within one kilometer of whales.

    Erin Gless, a biologist with whale watching charter Island Adventure, said portions of the bill may actually hurt the whales. With less whale watching boats on the water serving as an example for recreational boats, some may actually try to get closer for a better look, Gless said.

    "It could actually increase the risk to the whales," Gless said.

    A companion bill in the state senate is slated to be heard later this month.