Boaters venturing into the waters of Washington State this summer need to be aware that whale watching south of the border will be conducted a little differently come May 16th.  That’s when the new rules on how both commercial and recreational vessels are to conduct themselves around killer whales come into effect.  NOAA, the American equivalent of DFO, hopes these amended rules will further help safeguard the troubled southern resident killer whales that spend much of the summer in the inland waters of Washington State and British Columbia.

The southern resident population is listed as endangered in both Canada and the United States.  The population was hard hit by capture for the Aquarium trade in the 1960s and 70s, and a suite of current anthropogenic threats have not allowed them to rebound significantly.   This year there is an estimated 86 killer whales in the population, about half of which are sexually mature. Scientists have identified the major threats facing the population as a shortage of its preferred prey of Chinook salmon, disturbance from vessels, and pollution. Learn more about southern residents here.

NOAA’s new regulations double the distance in which vessels can approach the whales.  Boats are now required to keep 200 yards (182.88 m).  They also forbid vessels from intercepting a whale or positioning the vessel in its path- similar to the current ‘Be Whale Wise’ guidelines.  These rules apply to all types of boats, including motor boats, sail boats and kayaks, in Washington’s inland waters.

The guidelines in B.C. waters will remain the same for now, with the approach distance of 100m.  To read the complete ‘Be Whale Wise’ guidelines for Canadian waters, click here.  Of course, Canadian boats venturing in the Washington waters needs to be aware of and follow the amended regulations across the border.  Learn more about the American rules here.

When the changes to the regulations were first proposed by NOAA in 2009, they included a vessel exclusion zone, a half-mile wide, along the west side of San Juan Island from May 1 through the end of September. This is an area heavily used by the southern residents in the summer months, and the no-go zone here would have been similar to that at Robson Bight in British Columbia.  However, due to the extensive responses that were received during the public comment period, the no-go zone is not included in the final regulations.

Reducing disturbance from vessels has been highlighted as an important step in protecting these vulnerable animals.  Because resident killer whales use sound so pervasively to find food (echolocation) and communicate, noise from vessels may impact their ability to forage, socialize, and navigate. Vessel strikes are also of concern.  By whale watching safely and respectfully- and by following the regulations and guidelines in each jurisdiction- boaters can participate in whale viewing while minimizing their impact.