WDFW recommends 1,000-yard buffer around endangered Southern Resident orcas

A new report released by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) recommends the Legislature increase the vessel buffer for recreational boaters, commercial whale watching operators, and guided paddle tours around Southern Resident killer whales to 1,000 yards to further support orca recovery.

Unlike other orca populations in the Pacific that prey on marine mammals or sharks, the Southern Residents are specialized salmon hunters. And of all the Pacific salmon, the Chinook (King) are the most prized of all. In fact, Chinook salmon make up 80% of the orcas’ diet.

From late spring through fall, Southern Resident killer whales are often seen chasing Chinook and other salmon in the protected ocean waters of the Pacific Northwest, including the Salish Sea regions of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Strait of Georgia, and Puget Sound. In recent years, however, because of a lack of food, too much noise, or both, they are spending fewer days in the Salish Sea. Increasingly Southern Residents are feeding off the outer coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island or offshore Washington, and Oregon. And they have even been observed as far south as Monterey Bay, California. It is now known these coastal ocean waters are essential to Southern Residents.

Prompted by Senate Bill 5577, the report considers the effectiveness of rules for recreational boaters and commercial whale watching operators aimed at protecting Southern Residents from the effects of vessel noise and disturbance.

Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, Southern Resident killer whales face three main threats: lack of food, contaminants in their food, and vessel noise and disturbance as they forage and communicate using echolocation. Center for Whale Research’s September 2022 census recorded the Southern Resident population at just 73 individuals.

Just this past summer, the Department designated 12 Southern Residents as vulnerable after researchers demonstrated they were in the lowest body condition state — the bottom 20% for the whale’s age and sex — which is associated with a two-to-three times higher rate of mortality.

“We appreciate legislative leaders inviting an opportunity to reflect on our current statutes for recreational boaters and commercial whale watching operators,” said Julie Watson, Ph.D., WDFW’s killer whale policy lead. “Given the dire state of the Southern Resident killer whale population and the latest science on vessel impacts on foraging success, implementing the report’s recommendation to update the buffer around Southern Residents would support recovery of this endangered population.”

The Department also recommends maintaining the definition of commercial whale watching and the license requirement, but recommends changes to reduce the potential financial and administrative burden of the license and rules, simplifying where possible, and further distinguishing between motorized commercial whale watching and non-motorized, guided paddle tours.

The current law requires recreational vessels to stay at least 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales and at least 400 yards out of the path in front of and behind the whales. Vessels must also reduce their speed to seven knots within one-half nautical mile of Southern Residents.

Southern Resident orcas consist of one clan, each with distinct vocal dialects. Within the clan, there are three pods (J, K, L) which socialize internally, and migrate and forage as distinct groups. They are heavily researched and monitored and every orca has been given its own individual name.