Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission voted Friday to finalize new rules that will apply to the state’s commercial whale-watching vessels. While the rules seek to protect endangered Southern Resident killer whales from vessel noise and disturbance from whale-watching boats, they still allow for watching during the summer months when the whales are foraging in the Salish Sea.
“These new rules don’t go far enough to protect the critically endangered Southern Residents,” said Sophia Ressler, a staff attorney and Washington wildlife advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to do everything we can to give these iconic orcas the quiet waters they need to forage for food.”
In 2019, the Washington state Legislature passed a bill requiring the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to make rules to regulate and license the commercial whale-watching industry. Science shows that vessel noise affects the whales’ ability to communicate, makes it more difficult to find food and causes the whales to expend more energy to forage.
The new rules establish restrictions that will confine motorized commercial whale-watching vessels to view the Southern Residents during specific months and at certain times. The rule also codifies a no-go zone off the west side of San Juan Island, restricting all commercial whale-watching vessel traffic in that important foraging area.
The science panel convened for this process suggested the department choose a precautionary approach in the drafting of these rules. In response to pressure from the whale-watching industry, which refuses to stop watching the endangered Southern Residents, the department instead chose to allow three vessels at a time around the orcas at specific hours during the months of July, August and September.
Fleets in British Columbia, by contrast, have voluntarily stopped watching the orcas, and an economic analysis done on these rules found no significant impact to the industry.
Southern Resident killer whales are a specific ecotype of orcas native to the Salish Sea that migrates as far south at San Francisco Bay. The orcas feed exclusively on fish, primarily chinook salmon. With the extreme decline in chinook runs, the Southern Resident population has plummeted.
As of the last official count, there were only 74 orcas, the lowest population in 40 years. Two calves born in 2020 and another pregnant orca are reason to celebrate, but the population remains in dire circumstances without the restoration of chinook salmon runs and the ability to forage for food unimpeded by noise.
State invites input on prospecting rules
WDFW invites the public to provide feedback on proposed updates to the state hydraulic code’s mineral prospecting rules (WAC 220-660), designed to protect fish and their habitats.
The department is conducting this rule making process to implement elements of the Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1261, which changed parts of the law governing construction projects in state waters (RCW 77.55).
Proposed amendments to the hydraulic code rules include:
- Update definitions related to mineral prospecting;
- Require proof of compliance with the federal Clean Water Act to apply for an individual Hydraulic Project Approval for mineral prospecting not covered under the Gold and Fish pamphlet; and
- Require an individual Hydraulic Project Approval for mineral prospecting involving motorized or gravity siphon equipment.
The public can submit comments by Jan. 30 via email (HPARules@dfw.wa.gov) or mail (WDFW, Attn: Theresa Nation, PO Box 43200, Olympia, WA 98504).
The Fish and Wildlife Commission will host a public hearing for this rule update at their Jan. 29 meeting.
For more information, visit wdfw.wa.gov/licenses/environmental/hpa/rulemaking.
People with limited internet access can request assistance by calling the Habitat Program at (360) 902-2534.
Survey reveals Montanans’ views on grizzly bears
A new survey of Montanans shows positive attitudes toward grizzly bears and support for the presence of grizzly bears within the state, however, acceptance of bear presence in areas closer to residential and agricultural areas is lower than in remote public land areas.
Researchers with the University of Montana worked with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologists to better understand Montanans’ perspectives about grizzly bears and grizzly bear management in Montana.
A survey questionnaire was mailed to over 5,000 households randomly selected from across Montana, and 1,783 adults responded between November 2019 and January 2020. The survey’s confidence interval is plus or minus 3.5%. A summary of the results and the full survey is available to read online at bit.ly/2LRdxM3.
Overall, the survey results demonstrate the complex nature of grizzly bear–human relationships in Montana.
FWP will use the results from this study along with other public inputs to help inform grizzly bear management planning and decision-making processes going forward.
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