Commercial whale-watching licensing program

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 over the summer of 2020 and is being shared now for public comment and consideration by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. 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 is an open comment period (September 23-October 23, 2020) and scheduled public meeting (October 19, 2020, 6-8pm) 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 and submit comments.

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, forthcoming): 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.

Current Public Engagement Opportunities

There is one current opportunity for public comment:

  • Attend the SEPA public meeting on October 19, 2020 (6-8pm PDT, register here) where WDFW will take comments on the draft SEPA Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Alternatively, you may submit written comments through WDFW's SEPA webpage.

Upcoming Public Engagement Opportunities

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

  • Attend the December Fish and Wildlife Commission meetings with commercial whale watching on the agenda, and resister to give public comment during the official hearing on the rules.
  • Share a public comment as part of WDFW's rulemaking comment period anticipated October 21 - November 13, 2020.
  • 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.