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Recommendation: 18

Status: Complete

Establish a limited-entry, whale-watching permit system for commercial whale-watching vessels and commercial kayak groups in the inland waters of Washington State to increase acoustic and physical refuge opportunities for orcas.


Action 1

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife should create a limited-entry permit system to manage commercial whale watching in the inland waters of Washington State to reduce daily and cumulative impacts on Southern Residents. The department should develop the system in consultation with the Pacific Whale Watch Association, orca conservation organizations, and other stakeholders.

The permitting system will consider limiting commercial whale-watching activities by the following:

  • Number of boats that receive permits
  • Hours and duration spent near Southern Resident orcas
  • Location

Development of the permit system will consider limiting the total number of boats that receive permits and help codify conservative and flexible measures, such as limiting the number of boats and time commercial whale-watching vessels may spend near a particular group of whales at a given time.

Action 2

Consider implementing a buy-back program.

Action 3

Require the use of the Automatic Identification System to enable effective monitoring and compliance.

Action 4

Coordinate with Canadian authorities to develop and implement the permit system across boundaries.

Action 5

Formally apply standards from the Kayak Education and Leadership Program’s “Code of Conduct” for the organized operation of kayaks and other human-powered vessels near Southern Residents.

Implementation Details

  • By July 2019, the Legislature and Governor should establish a commercial whale-watching license for whale watching in the inland waters (exempting the ocean) to be managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The fees for the license should be placed in a dedicated account that could be used by the department for the management and enforcement of whale-watching activities.
  • The Department of Fish and Wildlife also should develop, assess, and consider alternatives that restrict the number of whale-watching licenses and implement any restrictions by May 2020.

Recent Progress

  • The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife submitted its Southern Resident Killer Whale Vessel Adaptive Management 2022 report to the Legislature. It’s required to report on new vessel regulations every 2 years.
  • Senate Bill 5371 and House Bill 1145 are being considered by the Legislature.
  • The Legislature passed a law to protect Southern Residents from disturbance by vessels. The law established commercial whale-watching licenses, sets fees for the licenses, and directed the Department of Fish and Wildlife to adopt rules for license holders for viewing Southern Residents. The department completed the rulemaking in 2020, and the licensing program and rules for commercial viewing of Southern Residents went into effect in early 2021.
  • In spring of 2021, the Legislature modified the law to restructure the license and waive commercial whale-watching license fees for 2021 and 2022. With state and grant funding, the department is funding several monitoring efforts in order to report to the Legislature on the effectiveness of the commercial licensing program and associated rules, as well as any recommendations to all vessel approach distance regulations in fall of 2022, 2024, and 2026. See Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Web site for information on the Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program.

More details may be found in the progress reports in the resources library.