Task force would stop whale-watching tours to protect orcas

A state task force on critically endangered orcas wants to temporarily stop all boats on the Salish Sea from viewing them — a recommendation that baffles those in the whale-watching boat industry.

At a meeting in Puyallup Tuesday, the group advising the governor voted to recommend a three- to five-year moratorium on all boats viewing southern resident killer whales, according to a press release from Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island.

What’s not been determined is how that would be done, in a practical sense.

“We see a lot of different populations of whales, and over the last few years the southern residents spend far less time in inland waters than they used to,” said Jeff Friedman, president of the Pacific Whale Watching Association, in an interview Thursday. The group represents 30 tour companies in Washington and British Columbia; Friedman also operates Maya’s Whale Watching out of Friday Harbor.

Friedman estimated the tour boats see southern residents on less than 15 percent of their outings. More often, they see Bigg’s killer whales, a transient group that can look like a southern resident’s twin brother but is a much less picky eater — preying on marine mammals.

The southern residents eat chinook salmon almost exclusively, which is why the task force also recommends several steps to increase the abundance of salmon by protecting their habitat.

“We are an easy optical target. We’re low-hanging fruit,” Friedman said of tour boat operators. “It’s easy to do something like this and feel we’re doing something big. The real key question is whether this going to have a significant benefit to the southern residents.”

The moratorium on tour boats is among a package of recommendations that will go to Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Legislature for specific action.

Ranker, D-Orcas Island, is a member of the task force.

“This report is just the first step. Our work is not finished, it has just begun,” Ranker said.

Ranker said the task force also recommends several steps to prevent oil spills — banning offshore drilling, mandating tug escorts for tankers and stationing an emergency rescue tug in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca that can respond when a vessel is in distress.

“Now we must all unite to ensure these recommendations become law, so our children and grandchildren can experience that total sense of awe as they see a healthy and thriving southern resident orca population in our Salish Sea,” Ranker said.

The orca task force is due to deliver its final report Nov. 16.

State Sen. Kevin Ranker was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.

An orca whale leaps out of the water near a whale watching boat in 2015. Southern resident orcas have been a federally listed endangered species since 2005. A governor’s task force suggests open season on walleye, bass and catfish, a permit system for whale-watching and spending millions on habitat restoration to help save the orcas. Elaine Thompson AP file