Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program

Orca breaching in Puget Sound
Ken Rea

In spring 2019, the Washington Legislature passed Senate Bill 5577: a bill concerning the protection of Southern Resident Orca Whales from vessels, which established a license for commercial whale watching and directed the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to administer the licensing program and develop rules for commercial viewing of Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). (See RCW 77.65.615 and RCW 77.65.620)

Commercial whale watching licenses were being sold as of February 2021, and operators were required to have a license to operate starting May 1, 2021 (this date was updated from March 1 by WDFW via emergency rule).

In spring 2021, the Washington Legislature passed a bill (ESB 5330) that modifies the license structure and fees and waives the commercial whale watching license fees in 2021 and 2022. The Governor signed the legislation, and it took effect on May 12, 2021. 

WDFW has modified the commercial whale watching license application to align with the new law.  Commercial whale watching businesses, operators, and kayak guides need to apply for their license and pass the required training to comply with the licensing program.  WDFW recognizes that commercial whale watching licensees and applicants may seek to modify their current license paperwork or may be submitting new applications shortly.  Through the month of May, WDFW will be working with licensees and applicants to ensure they are in compliance with the license requirements, and WDFW will begin to check for licenses in the field in June.  As a reminder, all of the SRKW commercial whale watching viewing rules are in effect.

We will also work with anyone who has already applied for their license to adjust their application and refund fees that no longer apply. Please reach out to WDFW staff if you have questions.

Get your license

How to apply

Detailed instructions are available here, and a summary is provided below.

Step 1: Prepare your application(s) on DocuSign and submit

Fill in the fields that are requested and submit. You will complete the attestation and signature in the next stage.

Online forms are available now!

Note that under the new license structure (per ESB 5330), if you own the business and operate vessels or lead kayak tours, you need to fill out both forms.

Step 2: Find the email from DocuSign, complete the signature process, and submit

In this stage, you'll complete the attestation and signature portion of the application, and then submit it. You will be able to download a copy of your completed application.

Step 3: What to do while waiting for your license

Print the signature page of your application and carry it with you when conducting commercial whale watching activities while you are waiting for your license to be delivered. WDFW Enforcement may check in with you to see where you are in the application process, and they may ask for proof that you've submitted your application. 

Step 4: License delivery

Once you have completed the online training requirement and your application has been approved, WDFW will email you a paper license for 2021 (also via DocuSign). Hard cards, besides the ones already issued, will not be used for 2021. Print copies of all applicable licenses and keep them on you when conducting commercial whale watching activities through the rest of the year.

Step 5: Looking forward

This fall, WDFW will be updating the WILD system to make it simpler to apply online and complete the training requirement. Commercial whale watching license applications for 2022 will go live in late fall 2021. Thank you for your patience as we adjust to the 2021 legislation!

Rules and regulations

The rules for commercial viewing of SRKW:

  • Include a three-month, July-September season when commercial viewing of SRKW by motorized commercial whale watching vessels may happen at closer than one-half nautical mile during two, two-hour periods daily (limit of three motorized commercial whale watching vessels per group of SRKW; zero with groups containing a calf of less than one year of age).
  • Make the voluntary ‘no-go’ zone along the west side of San Juan Island mandatory for commercial whale watching vessels year-round regardless of SRKW presence, allowing a 100-yard corridor for commercial kayak operations.
  • Only restrict commercial viewing of SRKW and do not further restrict the viewing of Bigg's killer whales, humpbacks, or other species of whales and marine mammals beyond regulations already in place.

The final rules were filed on December 23, 2020 and went into effect January 23, with the exceptions of sections 020 describing the license application process and requiring a license to operate and section 140 specifying compliance, training, and reporting requirements (which went into effect May 1, 2021).

  • WDFW filed an emergency rule that restricted commercial viewing of SRKW to one-half nautical mile from January 1-23, 2021, which covered the gap between January 1 and the permanent rules going into effect.
  • WDFW filed an emergency rule that changed the requirement to have a commercial whale watching license in order to operate from March 1 to May 1, 2021.

For more information, visit  RCW 77.65.615RCW 77.65.620WAC Chapter 220-460 and DFW's commercial whale watching rulemaking web page

Reporting and monitoring

There are three types of reporting whale watch operators should be aware of:

  • Real-time reporting of SRKW locations to the WhaleReport app
  • In-season monthly reporting of SRKW viewing activities that happen during the allowed viewing windows from July-September (a reporting system will be launched by July)
  • Reporting within 24 hours (motorized whale watching) or one week (non-motorized) of inadvertent SRKW encounters or sightings. 

WhaleReport app

Commercial operators should report all real-time SRKW sightings to the WhaleReport Alert System by logging them through the WhaleReport app. More information about the WhaleReport app is available on the Wild Whales website, and here's a video showing how to submit a report

In-season reporting

Monthly reporting of SRKW viewing activities that happen during allowed viewing windows, starting in July 2021. Once available, the portal for reporting will be embedded/linked here.

Inadvertent SRKW encounters

Kayak tours that encounter SRKW outside the main July-September season should report the details of the encounter below.

SRKW viewing by motorized commercial whale watch vessels at closer than one-half nautical mile is not allowed outside of the days and hours specified in WAC 220-460.

However, if a motorized commercial whale watching operator inadvertently comes across SRKW, they have three responsibilities:

  • Immediately retreat to at least one-half nautical mile.
  • Immediately report the SRKW location to the WhaleReport app.
  • Within 24 hours (for motorized vessel operators), report the details of the encounter below.

Annual training

As part of the commercial whale watching licensing program, WDFW will provide training for commercial operators to support reporting, and compliance monitoring procedures, including real-time reporting of SRKW sightings to the Whale Report Alert System.

There were three opportunities to participate in the development of the training:

  • March 2, 2021, 2-3pm PST
  • March 4, 2021 1-2pm PST
  • April 14, 2021 4-5pm PDT

As of May 1, 2021, operators need to complete the WDFW-provided 2021 training in order to operate. You can complete this training online, at a time that is convenient for you.

Here's what you need to do to complete this requirement for 2021:

  • Read WAC 220-460 including all the subsections. 
  • Watch the three training videos (less than 1 hour combined).
    • Module 1: Marine mammals & identifying SRKW
    • Module 2: Impact of whale watching on marine mammals, federal regulations, guidelines, and methods for assessing distance on the water
    • Module 3: The Washington rules for commercial whale watching license-holders
  • Pass the quiz on the materials. You will receive an email confirmation once you have passed the quiz.

Optional: You can use the form below to provide feedback on the 2021 training so that we can improve it for 2022. Please note that this survey is anonymous. Reach out to staff directly if you have questions or if you would like a response.

Resources

WDFW recognizes that watchable wildlife businesses care deeply about the recovery of SRKW. These operators provide an on-the-water opportunity for people to form lasting memories and emotional connections to our state’s iconic animals. We encourage Washingtonians and visitors looking to view SRKWs to either:

  • View from shore at a broad network of locations across the region, or
  • Go aboard a professional whale watching tour that can identify what you’re seeing and maintain appropriate distances from whales.

For folks who opt to get out on the water in a private vessel, boaters are encouraged to follow Be Whale Wise guidelines and recreate responsibly to keep people and wildlife safe. 

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 might be whales nearby. If you see the flag, slow down and follow guidelines.

FAQ

Do I need a license? As of May 1, 2021, a commercial whale watching license is required for commercial whale watching businesses including motorized, sailing, and sea kayak tour operations. Licenses are also required for vessel operators and kayak guides.

What if my business does not offer "whale watching tours" but views whales and other marine mammals opportunistically? It is up to each business to determine whether its operations qualify under the rules as whale watching. However, in the authorizing legislation (2019's 2SSB 5577), sea kayak tour businesses were specifically identified within the umbrella of commercial whale watching activities. Besides the rule text linked here (WAC chapter 220-460), we recommend reading RCW 77.65.615 and RCW 77.15.815 to assess what’s best for you and your business. Please be aware that unlawfully engaging in commercial whale watching is defined as a crime in RCW 77.15.815.

What about fishing charter businesses that view marine mammals opportunistically? Incidentally viewing whales and other marine mammals while fishing or transiting (as long as you don’t change behavior to give your passengers a viewing opportunity) does not require a commercial whale watching license, but actively pursuing marine mammal viewing during fishing charters (and/or advertising and promoting viewing of marine mammals to clients) would. 

How much does a commercial whale watching license cost? The business license has a $200 annual cost, in addition to the $75 annual application fee. Additional fees vary based on motorized vessel passenger capacity, if applicable. Besides the business license, each operator of a commercial whale watching vessel is required to get an operator license, which costs $100 plus a $75 application fee. Each guide who leads kayak tours on behalf of a sea kayak tour company is required to get a kayak guide license, which costs $25 plus a $25 application fee. You can calculate your fees using the fee information in RCW 77.65.615.

The license fees defined in RCW 77.65.615 have been waived for 2021 and 2022. Commercial whale watching licenses are required starting in 2021, but they are available at no cost to businesses, operators, and kayak guides.

How often should I renew my license? Commercial whale watching licenses expire at midnight on December 31st of the calendar year for which they are issued. Licenses may be renewed annually upon application and payment of the applicable license fees.

Do I need to take a training? Yes. All business, operator, and kayak guide license holders must complete annual training from the department on marine mammals, distances on the water, impacts of whale watching on marine mammals, and southern resident killer whale-related rules and reporting. Naturalists and others who work on commercial whale watching vessels but are not license holders are encouraged to attend.

How will the rules be enforced? WDFW recognizes that commercial whale watching operators are deeply invested in the recovery of Southern Residents and take measures to support their survival seriously. WDFW Enforcement officers routinely do on-the-water patrols to help keep people — and wildlife — safe and can issue fines or criminal citations for commercial operators violating these rules. Please reach out to WDFW Enforcement or Department staff with questions.

How did the department develop these rules? These rules represent a year-long process with guidance from WDFW's Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program Advisory Committee, an intergovernmental coordination group and an independent science panel. In addition to the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process, the rules were also informed by reports summarizing the science and analyzing economic impacts on small businesses. The Commission also received input from more than 4,000 commenters on the draft rules. More information is available on our rule making web page