OLYMPIA – To kick off boating season, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), NOAA Fisheries, Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and other partners are calling on recreational boaters to follow Be Whale Wise regulations to protect Southern Resident killer whales.
Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, Southern Residents face three main threats: a lack of food, contaminants in their food, and vessel noise and disturbance as they forage and communicate using echolocation. Center for Whale Research’s March 2022 census recorded the Southern Resident population at just 74 individuals, although researchers are hopeful with the news of a birth in K pod this May.
“We share a steadfast commitment alongside federal and Canadian partners to help advance protections for these endangered animals and preserve for future generations the magic of seeing these whales in the wild,” said Kelly Susewind, WDFW Director. “We invite recreational boaters on both sides of the border to be a part of that effort by properly following the regulations and guidance outlined on the Be Whale Wise website.”
“To help protect the Southern Resident killer whale, the Government of Canada is putting in place concrete protective measures developed in partnership with Indigenous partners and regional stakeholders,” said Michelle Sanders, Acting Director General of Environmental Policy at Transport Canada. “We are proud to work closely with our American counterparts to help protect this iconic species and to continue to provide a safer, quieter trans-boundary environment in which this endangered whale population can recover.”
A key finding from research that NOAA Fisheries published in 2021 indicated the effects of vessel noise are especially prominent for females, which often cease foraging when boats approach within 400 yards. Research shows this tendency to stop foraging when boats are nearby may be most concerning for pregnant or nursing mothers that need to find more food to support calves.
This is especially critical given the low percentage of breeding females in the Southern Resident population and challenges with successful births and calf survival.
“We need everyone’s help to follow the science and give the Southern Residents every chance to forage successfully,” said Grace Ferrara, acting recovery coordinator for the Southern Residents in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “That means giving them the extra space and quiet that we know they need to successfully hunt and find their salmon prey.”
This is the first boating season when the U.S.-Canadian border has been open since before the pandemic, underscoring the importance of cross-border coordination.
Be Whale Wise regulations
Launched in 2011, Be Whale Wise is a partnership of governmental agencies, nonprofits and other stakeholders in British Columbia and Washington state to conduct research and educate the public on laws and best vessel practices to protect whales including the Southern Residents.
“Boaters can play a huge role in the protection of these whales by learning and complying with regulations and guidelines,” said Alanna Frayne, Be Whale Wise coordinator with The Whale Museum. “Before you get underway this season, check the Be Whale Wise site for any updates to best practices, safe distances and speed. These rules are especially important around new calves and vulnerable individuals in the Southern Resident population. You can also learn about the critical zones in our area on either side of the border, and how to safely operate around them.”
Regulations in Washington
Washington law requires vessels to stay at least 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales and at least 400 yards out of their path or behind the whales. Vessels must also reduce their speed to seven knots within one-half nautical mile of Southern Residents.
“It’s not uncommon for us to hear of instances when people are getting too close within these regulated boundaries,” said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Police Captain Alan Myers said. “Recreational boaters’ adherence to these regulations is a big part of how we can help protect these endangered orcas while they feed, forage, and transit Washington’s waters.”
Regulations in Canada
The Government of Canada continues to take strong action to support the protection and recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale population. For the fourth consecutive year, it will implement mandatory measures to further protect these whales in Canadian waters. The 2022 measures include salmon fisheries closures, seasonal slowdown areas, interim sanctuary zones where vessels are prohibited, and a year-round requirement that all vessels must stay 400m away from all killer whales in southern BC coastal waters from Campbell River to just north of Ucluelet.
The Government of Canada also actively promotes a number of voluntary measures that align with the Be Whale Wise Guidelines. The Southern Resident killer whale management measures are in addition to the Marine Mammal Regulations which prohibit disturbances in order to protect the many populations of marine mammals that call British Columbia their home.
“The Be Whale Wise guidelines are an essential tool in protecting these majestic whales and marine mammals in the Pacific Waters,” said the Honourable Joyce Murray, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard. “As a long-time partner in collaboratively developing the guidelines, we support the valuable work of our partners to limit the impacts of human activity on the Southern Resident killer whale population.”
On both sides of the border, boaters are encouraged to watch for the Whale Warning Flag, an optional tool from the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee that lets others know that there are whales nearby. If boaters see the flag, they should slow down and continue to follow Be Whale Wise regulations and guidelines.
Visit sjcmrc.org/other-content/whale-warning-flag/ for more information about the flag, which is available for a small fee.
Members of the public can also report whale sightings to the Whale Report app. Sightings are shared with large vessels like cargo ships, tankers and ferries so they can slow down or take other measures to prevent ship strikes. Sightings are also shared with wildlife enforcement officers. For more information, visit wildwhales.org/wras/.
For more details about Be Whale Wise regulations and steps recreational boaters can take to keep the whales – and themselves – safe, visit BeWhaleWise.org.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife works to preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities.