The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has published a draft rule to establish a commercial whale-watching licensing program in Puget Sound. AWI submitted comments supporting strong oversight to maximize protection of Southern Resident orcas in an intensive whale-watching area. While we praise the state’s move to add protections for these endangered whales, our comments emphasized the benefits of responsible commercial whale watching and noted that unregulated recreational boaters are responsible for far more harassment.
We also do not want this laudable effort to license commercial whale-watching vessels to distract from the far more critical concern of prey scarcity facing the orcas. Salmon stocks throughout the region are struggling due to human-caused habitat degradation. While noise and harassment from commercial and recreational whale-watching vessels are significant, the whales are far better able to manage these stressors when they are well fed. The most important regulatory action the whales need now is restoration of salmon spawning habitat. This must include strategic dam removal, a step managers have been notoriously reluctant to take. Unless all steps to restore the region’s marine ecosystem are taken, regulating commercial whale watchers—however well intentioned—is but a Band-Aid applied to a gaping wound.