Commercial whale-watching licensing program

The description of the proposed rule in the Oct. 21, 2020 press release suggested Option A would allow motorized commercial whale-watching vessels to view SRKW daily from July-September; however, the proposed rule text as filed for Option A includes the same Friday-Monday viewing window as proposed in Option B. WDFW is interested in hearing public comments on Option A as filed and also in receiving comments on daily viewing.

Orca breaching
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 developed 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)

The purpose of creating rules for commercial whale watching of SRKW is to reduce the impacts of vessel noise and disturbance on the whales' ability to forage, rest, and socialize while enabling sustainable whale watching

Draft rule language was developed in a year-long process and is being shared now for public comment and consideration by the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

There are two options under consideration and available for public comment

  • Option A includes a three-month July-September season for motorized commercial whale watching of SRKW with two, two-hour periods per day where viewing SRKW is allowed at closer than one-half nautical mile (limit of 3 motorized commercial whale watching vessels per group of SRKW). In the final stages of drafting the proposed rule, text that would limit viewing to Friday-Monday was inadvertently included in Option A. WDFW is seeking comments on Option A as filed. The public is also welcome to comment on the possibility of daily viewing during those months.
  • Option B adds a shoulder season of two months on either side (May/June and October/November) of the main season. The shoulder season is Saturday-Sunday viewing only (limit of 1 motorized commercial whale watching vessel per group of SRKW) and the main summer season viewing (July-September) is Friday-Monday (limit of 3 motorized commercial whale watching vessels per group of SRKW). For days that allow viewing of SRKW, there are two, two-hour periods.
  • Note: The seasons described in Options A and B only apply to the viewing of SRKW by motorized commercial whale watching vessels and do not restrict the viewing of other whales or marine mammals.
  • Both options propose formalizing the ‘no-go’ zone on the west side of San Juan Island (currently voluntary) for motorized commercial whale watching vessels (100-yard corridor along the shore for kayaks). The no-go zone is included in both alternatives. It would apply year-round regardless of SRKW presence. 
  • License application processes, reporting and training requirements, kayak-focused measures, and AIS requirements are present in both options.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission will have a briefing and hearing on the proposed rules December 4-5, 2020. Per the mandate in the legislation, WDFW expects adoption of final rules by January 2021.

Read more about the importance of reducing vessel noise and disturbance, plus other key threats to SRKW including contaminants and insufficient prey, in the final report posted on the Governor's Southern Resident Orca Task Force website.

Advisory Committee

In October 2019, WDFW solicited applicants for an ad-hoc advisory committee to help develop these rules and processes. The committee met from January through July 2020. To view the meeting summaries and materials, visit the Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program Advisory Committee page.

Science Panel

RCW 65.77.620 requires WDFW to use best available science to develop the rules for commercial viewing of SRKW and to adaptively manage the rules over time. WDFW partnered with the Washington State Academy of Sciences to convene an independent panel of scientists to review the science and provide scientific input to the Advisory Committee and WDFW throughout the rulemaking process. 

SEPA Environmental Impact Statement

WDFW is conducting a SEPA Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process to inform the rulemaking. This state environmental review process focuses on public engagement in the scoping of options and review of alternatives under consideration. There are two major opportunities for engagement: 

  • Scoping: WDFW held a scoping period from May 18- June 8, 2020 and received over 150 comments on the scope of environmental impacts to consider in the EIS. The scoping report summarizes themes from the comments received in the scoping process.
  • Review of the Draft EIS: There was a public meeting (October 19, 2020, 6-8pm) and comment period (September 23-October 23, 2020) on the draft report analyzing environmental impacts of various rule alternatives and identifying mitigation measures. Visit WDFW's SEPA webpage to view the Draft EIS.

Economic Analysis

RCW 65.77.620 requires WDFW to consider the economic viability of license-holders in the development of the rules for commercial viewing of SRKW. There are two components of the economic analysis:

  • Economic viability analysis (August 2020): This report assesses how various management options would affect the industry's ability to remain viable.
  • Economic impact analysis (October 2020): The small business economic impact statement (SBEIS) assesses whether the proposed rules will have more than minor costs that disproportionately affect small businesses and explores cost mitigation strategies.

Public Engagement Opportunities

There are multiple ways for partners and members of the public to participate in the rule-making process.

  • Submit written comments on the proposed rules between October 21 - December 5, 2020 (5pm PST). The web submission form has options for you to add your comment in a text box or upload a document. You also have the option to submit your comments via mail (PO Box 43200, Olympia, WA 98504-3200).

    • There are two options of the proposed rules (Option A and Option B) available for your consideration and comment.
    • You can review the small business economic impact statement (SBEIS) to learn how we assessed impacts of the two options on small businesses.
    • Note: Comments received by November 13 will be summarized and presented to the Commission during the December 4-5 hearing; however, WDFW will continue to accept and consider written comments received through December 5, 2020.
  • Attend the December Fish and Wildlife Commission meetings with commercial whale watching on the agenda, and register to give public comment during the official hearing on the rules.
  • Learn about what you can do to help the Southern Resident orcas, and Be Whale Wise if you spend time on the water in killer whale habitat, which extends throughout Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, British Columbia, and the outer coast from California to Alaska.
  • Sign up for our killer whale mailing list to keep up to speed on the process and opportunities to share your ideas and feedback.