Orca task force to recommend moratorium on southern resident killer whale watching

PUYALLUP, Wash. -- The governor's orca task force will likely recommend a moratorium on whale watching the endangered Southern resident orca in the Puget Sound.

The group voted on an action Tuesday that would "suspend viewing" of the endangered southern resident for three to five years.

The action would prohibit all vessels in the Puget Sound from "watching" the marine mammals. Washington State's Department of Fish and Wildlife would be in charge of rulemaking and regulation.

The rule is expected to be included in the task force's final recommendations, slated to be sent to the governor on Nov. 16. Recommendations need to be approved by the governor and some will require legislative action.

The southern resident orca population is already at its lowest number in more than three decades, with just 74 left on the planet. The species was listed as endangered in 2005 but it continues to decline.

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order to form a task force to provide recommendations that would save the species from extinction. Since the task force's formation, three orcas have died, including a newborn calf.

At Tuesday's meeting, a representative for the Pacific Whale Watching Association voted against the rule. Commercial whale watching groups are currently allowed to watch southern residents, as well as transient orcas.

A moratorium on southern resident orcas watching could impact the business of some whale watchers, but it was not immediately known to what extent. A call to the president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association was not immediately returned.

Six other task force representatives abstained from voting on the recommendation. Thirty-three members voted for it.

A task force representative said commercial groups will still be able to watch transient orcas, even while southern residents are in the Puget Sound.

Many details like how the law will be enforced and what penalties boats would get from watching the endangered orcas would need to be hammered out if the governor accepts the recommendation, a task force spokesperson said.

This story will be updated.