Bold proposals to save southern resident whales lose teeth in Legislature

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OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Some of the boldest actions proposed in the Legislature to save the southern resident orcas appear dead in the water.

Bills to restrict whale watching and impose new regulations on the lucrative industry passed out of committees in both state houses Thursday.

However, HB 1580 and SB 5577 were watered down from their original versions, stripping some of what was intended to protect the whales from boat noise in order to help the orcas find Chinook salmon.

There are only 75 southern resident killer whales left. Vessel disturbance is considered one of the three main threats – along with lack of food and pollution – impacting the whales.

Amendments to the bills killed a temporary suspension of whale watching on southern resident orcas.

A "limited-entry" whale watching permit program was also scrubbed, though the bill allows Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to regulate whale watching through a new licensing program. Amendments also changed the minimum distance of any boat to a southern resident from 400 to 300 yards.

Taylor Shedd with the Soundwatch Boater Education Program said he was disheartened by the changes. The governor's orca task force had worked hard to draft these changes, he said, and he hoped bold action would be taken.

"We all thought the task force was going to - and this legislative session - were going to do something and it was going to be better and there would be this weight lifted off our shoulders," Shedd said. "But it just seems like it's going to be a tougher fight than ever."

Shedd and Soundwatch did not support forcing whale watch boats to stay farther away from the orcas than recreational boaters, but he did support keeping all boats 400 yards away.

Killer whales emit high-frequency clicks to forage for salmon. Restricting boats may help alleviate the noise in waters crowded by small, personal crafts.

Representatives from the Pacific Whale Watching Association argued that parts of the original bills could hurt a vital industry that brings in roughly $60 million annually to the region’s economy. The PWWA has voluntarily instituted some of the strictest policies in the area for boating, representatives said, and recreational boaters often look to whale watching boats for instruction.

Following the bills' passing, representatives from the PWWA said they will continue to work with the state to look for ways to help the whales.

"We continue to work with the legislature and the science community to ensure that the state takes actions that will help provide immediate benefit to the Southern Resident killer whales," a spokesperson said. "The Pacific Whale Watch Association has been working for decades to ensure our vessels are the quietest on the water and the captains guiding them are the most well-trained."

Supporters of the original bills included representatives from NOAA, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office and the state Department of Natural Resources.

“Fewer vessels means that the whales are more capable of finding food quickly and wasting less energy,” said Amy Windrope with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Bills must be passed in the house they originated in by March 13.

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