Recreational boaters to see new rules for Southern Resident killer whales soon

New legislation aimed at giving Southern Resident killer whales more space to swim, hunt and gather in the Salish Sea is fast-approaching.

Beginning in Jan. 2025, recreational boaters will be asked to stay 1,000 yards away from the endangered orcas at all times. This roughly triples the current rules, which require vessels to stay at least 300 yards back, or 400 yards out of the path when in front of whales.

The law, signed into legislation by Governor Inslee earlier this year, is meant to cut down on vessel noise, which is believed to hinder their ability to feed.

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"There’s been some recent science that shows their ability to catch salmon, their favorite food, drops when boats are nearby," said Julie Watson, the policy lead on orcas for Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW). "Giving them that extra space can be the difference between them getting that food where they can feed their young, versus they go hungry."

It’s long been known that three major challenges face the Southern Residents: a lack of food, contaminants in the water, and vessel noise that interrupts their use of echolocation for hunting.

When Southern Residents can’t eat, it causes a cascading effect. As Lynne Barre, a branch chief with NOAA Fisheries, explains it, when the endangered orcas miss a meal, they feel the effects of the harmful contaminants found in the fish they eat and the waters they swim in.

"Many of these harmful contaminants are stored in whale’s blubber, so as they’re using that blubber when they don’t have enough to eat, that’s when they circulate in their system and can even cause a problem for reproduction," explained Barre.

It’s worth noting that people paying to go sightseeing on whale-watch boats won’t notice much a change even when the new rules kick in.

If you’ve seen orcas in the past year on a commercial boat, you likely saw what are known as Biggs—or transient—killer whales.

Recreational outfits began spending less time around Southern Residents in 2022, when emergency rules from WDFW required additional space be given to orcas deemed "vulnerable." Since Southern Residents stay in family groupings known as pods, they’re traditionally near whales that have been deemed "vulnerable." In other words, you still see orcas, but rarely the Southern Residents.

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WDFW is suggesting that recreational boaters take the time to learn the new rules now, before the updated legislation kicks in.

It’s hard for the general public to differentiate between the two species of orca, but judging distances on the water is incredibly hard. In fact, some boaters have a hard time recognizing when orcas are in the water.

Earlier this summer, FOX 13 News had an opportunity to go out on the water with members of WDFW’s law enforcement team while patrolling local waters.

The Southern Residents didn’t make an appearance, but the concern over how recreational boaters interact with whales became clear when a boater drove right through the path of Biggs killer whales while whale-watch boats honked their horns in an attempt to stop them from steering right through their path.

"Before you know it they’re going right over the top of the whales," said Officer Taylor Kimball, who’s been running enforcement with WDFW for 10 years. "Just because you see them on the surface at one point, doesn’t mean they won’t go down and come up right next to you. So, my advice is to give them as much space as possible."

Kimball admitted that they can’t be everywhere at once. Summertime is extremely busy with salmon fisheries, shrimp fisheries, crab fisheries and boating patrols – however, Southern Residents have risen to the top of the priority list in recent years.

"When people see us, they tap the brakes. We want people to pay attention on the water, because sometimes it’s hard to see the whales."

For more information on current, and future, rules surrounding the Southern Resident killer whales you can check out the Be Whale Wise website.

You can also find the best locations for shore-based viewing of Southern Resident killer whales by using The Whale Trail’s website.