Whale watching industry defends viewing endangered southern resident orcas

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. -- It was billed as a “bold action” the state could take that would have an immediate impact on our struggling southern resident orcas, but it never gained support in the Legislature.

This legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee and his orca task force called for a temporary ban on whale watching activity around the endangered killer whales. Scientists say vessel disturbance is one of three threats facing these whales, along with lack of prey and contaminants in the water.

The governor request bill would have required commercial whale watch vessels stay 650 yards away from the southern residents, but as the bill made its way through Olympia, legislators stripped the suspension from the text.

The proposed moratorium was divisive from the start. At one of the final task force meetings of 2018, the idea was reintroduced as a compromise after members refused to support a permanent "no-go zone" on the west coast of San Juan Island. The majority of task force members voted in favor of the whale watch suspension.

However, the governor's office revealed this week that not a single legislator in Olympia was on board. Even the bill's legislative sponsors have told Q13 News the measure lacked support from the start.

After the task force recommended the whale watch moratorium, the Pacific Whale Watch Association -- which represents 32 whale watching companies -- hired a consulting firm to help lobby legislators.

"There were things going on in government that we didn't know how to navigate and felt like we could use some help," explained Jeff Friedman, the U.S. president of the transboundary association.

Friedman admitted that over the next couple of months, they were more wary of working with the state on proposed legislation to restrict vessels around the endangered orcas.

"We weren’t saying no to everything, but there were certainly some trust issues when came out and I think we needed to take a step back and kind of see where things were," he said.

The association, facing public scrutiny over the refusal to support certain measures, invited Q13 News on a whale watch tour to explain its positions.

It was a cold, snowy day in March when we set out from San Juan Island aboard Friedman's Maya's Legacy Whale Watching boat. He and two naturalists hosted a family visiting from England.

"It's my birthday," said Cora McManus, who turned 23 years old that day. Asked what she wanted for her birthday, "I would love to see a whale."

"If we could see an orca, that would be our dream," said Cora's mother, Sarah McManus.

Friedman warned that seeing whales is never a guarantee. He got on the radio to talk to other captains on the water. They consistently share locations, plans and sightings over a private radio network.

"Go with your gut, hopefully you'll find something soon and we'll shoot over there," Friedman said to another captain on the radio.

A couple of hours into the tour, we've seen Steller sea lions, Mouflon sheep, harbor seals and bald eagles. On one small island, we watched a bald eagle pick apart the carcass of a harbor seal.

"Whether you see whales or you're seeing an eagle, it just takes people out of their daily life," Friedman said. "So it doesn't have to be a whale to do that."

Still, whales are what drives this business. While humpbacks, minkes and gray whales swim the Salish Sea, orcas are a big draw.

"I saw when we were looking to visit Seattle that it’s very famous for being able to see orcas," Sarah McManus said. "Orcas are our favorite type of whale so we wanted to come try and see some."

There are two types of orcas in Puget Sound: Transients and southern residents. The southern resident orcas have been endangered since 2005, struggling from lack of prey, contaminants and vessel noise.

"I don’t think you’re going to have anybody out there saying that noise doesn’t have a potential impact on them," Friedman said.

Studies show vessels disrupt the whales foraging, from behavioral changes to their ability to echolocate. However, the whale watch industry fought hard against the moratorium that could have given the struggling whales more space.

"There are some risks of us not being there and I think we lose some value of us not being able to connect people with their story," Friedman said.

It’s a quandary his own passengers face.

"We probably should just be leaving them alone, to be honest," Cora McManus said. "But I think it’s also important to raise awareness and I think when you do put a face to an animal, it then impacts you a bit more."

Friedman likes to say that the passengers become citizen lobbyists by the end of their tours. Hundreds of thousands of people board whale watch boats each year in the Pacific Northwest.

There are plenty of voices still advocating for a whale watch suspension on southern residents. "Acoustic hell" is how Orca Relief Citizens Alliance executive director Janet Thomas started her written testimony to legislators, urging them to support the suspension.

But the PWWA argues that it's speed, not proximity, that makes the water too noisy for whales. They point to a 2015 University of Washington study that found speed to be "the most important predictor of noise levels."

That study inspired the PWWA to add a guideline for its captains to go slow, 7 knots or less, within a half-nautical mile of whales. They adopted that guideline in 2018.

A new vessel regulation bill making its way through the legislature would make that slow zone mandatory for all boats on the water. It's one of the few measures the whale watch industry advocated for and supported from the start.

The industry also argued against the proposed buffer zone of staying 400 yards away from southern residents. Current law requires a 200-yard distance. The amended bill splits the difference, increasing the distance to 300 yards.

If the legislation passes as it’s written today, the state would also start regulating the commercial whale watching industry, with the ability to limit the number of whale watch boats around southern residents at any one time; the amount of time each boat can spend near one group of residents; the days and hours they operate; and where they operate.

"We will support this vessel bill, especially if it means that it’s tied to the slow speed zone," Friedman said.

With that, he said he hopes to move forward and discuss other impacts to the whales.

"We can deal with every other threat that they have, but if they don’t have enough to eat, none of this is going to matter for them," he said.

It's a message he drives home to his passengers. After searching miles of water, Friedman and the naturalists fail to spot a single whale to show the family from England. If they are disappointed, they hide it well.

"It’s been amazing talking to April and Jeff and just being out on the water and seeing sea lions and eagles," Cora McManus said.

Not all tours have whales, much less southern residents. But the McManus family walked away knowing a little more about their plight.

Southern resident orcas are spending fewer and fewer days in the Puget Sound. Scientists believe it’s because they’re out searching for food, unable to find what they need closer to shore.

That fact, coupled with the thriving transient orca and humpback populations, mean these days, viewing southern residents make up just about 15 percent of all whale watch tours.

The legislature has roughly month left in session to pass a new vessel regulation bill.