The legislation would increase from 200 yards to 300 yards how far boats must stay in front of the whales, and boosts to 400 yards the distance they must keep behind the Salish Sea’s southern resident whale population.
The bill would establish a go-slow zone, limiting to 7 knots the speed traveled by whale watching boats from 400 yards to half a nautical mile from the orcas.
The legislation would “begin to reduce the noise and disturbance that makes it difficult for southern resident orca whales to navigate, communicate with one another and hunt for prey,” said State. Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, its chief sponsor.
“We know that slowing down boats and providing a large zone where boats are absent are necessary to quiet the waters near orcas and preserve their health,” Rolfes said.
Pressed by commercial whale watch operators, however, the Legislature did not heed the recommendation of a panel named by Gov. Jay Inslee, which urged a years-long moratorium on watch boats.
The Senate vote was 46-3, with three Republicans opposed.
One Puget Sound lawmaker, State Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, voted No. Whidbey Island is a major center for the whale preservation movement, headquarters to the Orca Network and site of Langley’s annual whale festival and parade.
The plight of the killer whales has become a political issue in both the United States and Canada.
The southern resident orcas divide their time between the San Juan Islands, British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the northern Pacific Coast.
The whales are endangered because their prime source of food, chinook salmon, is also endangered, particularly salmon runs in the Columbia and Snake River system.
Gov. Inslee and British Columbia Premier John Horgan have taken up the plight of the orcas, particularly in opposing a giant Canadian pipeline project that would put 400 laden oil tankers a year into waters of the Salish Sea and Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The National Energy Board of Canada, looking to green-light the project, came out with a report last month that minimized the danger of an oil spill … but recommended that B.C. Ferries slow down so as not to bother the whales.
The Senate bill now goes to the state House of Representatives.