Celebrating new protections for endangered orcas during Orca Action month

Submitted by San Juan County.

June is Orca Action Month, and this year, San Juan County is joining partners around the Salish Sea to celebrate the Lasting Legacies of these sentinel animals. This month, the County’s Marine Program staff and Marine Resources Committee members will be ramping up their outreach efforts with Be Whale Wise partners on both sides of the border to educate boaters about how to boat responsibly to protect these endangered whales and the many other species that call these waters home. Be Whale Wise is a transboundary partnership of State, Provincial, and Federal agencies and non-profits in British Columbia and Washington State to provide outreach and education to boaters.

This year the message will focus on “Giving Whales Space.” Educational signage has gone out to marinas around the county, whale warning flag packs are heading out to boaters, and dock talks are planned to support the efforts of the Whale Museum’s Soundwatch Boater Education Program.

Continuing environmental leadership to recover Southern Resident Orca

San Juan County was the first to lead the charge for regulating vessel impacts on these whales by passing a Council Resolution in 2007. This was the first law of its kind from a local government. Since then, the buffer distance between boaters and whales has increased steadily through both state and federal regulations as we better understand vessel impacts. Vessel noise and disturbance disrupts the whales’ foraging behavior, reducing their ability to successfully catch increasingly rare salmon.

On May 15, San Juan County’s Marine Scientist Frances Robertson represented the County in Olympia at the signing of Senate Bill 5371. The bill garnered strong bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House thanks to the hard work of 40th District Representatives, House Representative Lekanoff and Senator Liz Lovelett, as well as other local and regional non-profit organizations.

“Supporting this new legislation is the culmination of the County and MRC’s 5 years of dedicated boater outreach to introduce the whale warning flag,” said Robertson. “It is amazing to know that a small project piloted in the San Juans is now supported by the State and that we were able to contribute our expertise to the formation of this legislation.”

sb5371signingThis groundbreaking bill will create a 1,000-yard mandatory buffer around Southern Resident Orca to protect them from vessel noise and disturbance. It is the largest protective buffer distance for a whale species anywhere.

While this extended vessel buffer won’t go into effect until January 2025, wildlife managers and the Be Whale Wise partners are encouraging boaters to slow down and give Southern Resident Orca as much space as possible.

“This bill and the 1,000-yard distance is not only supported by the best available science but is also a critical part of our collective efforts to shift boater behaviors and make it the norm to slow down and give these endangered whales the space that they need,” said Robertson.

In addition to initiating the mandatory 1,000-yard buffer for recreational boaters starting in January 2025, the bill also includes:

Direction for increased communications and outreach to enhance public awareness and compliance with the regulations.

Modifications to how WDFW licenses commercial whale watching and sea kayak tour companies, including streamlining fees for commercial operators.

Distinctions for sea paddle operations in relation to motorized commercial whale watching.

Changes to the enforcement statute better align with how WDFW enforces other natural resource offenses.

The County’s Marine Program, guided by the Marine Resources Committee, heads up the County’s Residents’ Orca recovery efforts. If you’re heading out on the water this summer check out all you need to know at www.bewhalewise.org and be sure to have your whale warning flag. Flags are available from San Juan County Marine Program in the Department of Environmental Stewardship. Learn more at www.whaleflag.org.