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Professional whale watchers serve sentinel role to protect whales | Guest column

by the Pacific Whale Watch Association

Pacific Whale Watch Association members have vessels to the presence of whales more than 300 times since July. The ability to observe and report the presence of the endangered Southern residents would end if strict restrictions currently proposed are adopted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

PWWA uses sentinal actions to alert ships, boats and ferries when they are in the vicinity of whales, encouraging them to slow down or go around.

On Dec. 4, the WDFW Wildlife Commission met to consider the department’s proposals to create a commercial whale watch licensing program. Whale watch regulations in Washington state are three times the global standard, and the PWWA’s current best practices that have been refined over more than two decades are considered the gold standard worldwide.

While the PWWA supports a licensing system for whale watching in Washington, there are serious concerns that proposed restrictions could inadvertently remove the PWWA’s ability to alert vessles to the presence of whales and our dedicated collaborative efforts — and will increase daily cumulative impacts on the Southern residents.

“Reducing sound levels in the water is really important for the whales,” Captain Christopher Hanke of Puget Sound Express in Edmonds and Port Townsend said. “So while we’re shut down drifting and watching whales from a distance there are deep-draft ships going right over them, ferries going right by them, and motorboats doing twenty knots less than a mile away from them. That’s the real impact of vessel traffic across the waterways.”

By providing vessels of all sizes with the exact location of whales, oftentimes the alerted vessels will then slow and use whale watch vessels as a visual marker to navigate safely around the whales.

Recent studies conclude that vessel speed is more disturbing to whales than distance. Reducing vessel speed in the vicinity of orcas would reduce noise exposure. Thus, vessels traveling at under 7-knots within a half-mile of whales — a best-practice policy the PWWA embraced years ago and strictly adheres to — are considered by scientists to be of no harm to whales at the current required distance of 300 yards.

2020 Sentinel Actions

Although the 2020 whale watch season didn’t begin until early July due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PWWA performed more than 300 “Sentinel Actions” over the summer. Sixty two percent of actions were vessels traveling at high speed at or near whales; 63 percent were vessels traveling directly at whales; and 20 percent were PWWA members alerting vessels traveling directly over the top of whales.

Two-thirds of PWWA’s efforts were successful, resulting in slowing or diverting vessels near whales and reducing the daily cumulative impacts from vessels on whales throughout the region.

“Each of these Sentinel actions reflects a strong commitment by our professional whale watch community to engage in real-time marine mammal conservation efforts,” PWWA President Jeff Friedman said. “The PWWA considers serving as sentinels as an integral part of our collective efforts to protect and conserve these beloved whales.”