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Recommendation: 49

Status: Underway

Conduct a comprehensive environmental review and take action to minimize potential whale-strike risk and underwater noise posed by the growing number and distribution of fast ferries and water taxis in Southern Resident critical habitat.


Action 1

Federal and state agencies should conduct a comprehensive environmental review.

Action 2

Washington State Ferries should work with operators of fast ferries and water taxis to implement effective actions.

Action 3

Washington Maritime Blue should be included in technology and innovation solutions.

Implementation Details

The volume of fast ferry and water taxi traffic has risen dramatically recently, ranking near the top of all vessel classes in Puget Sound (but are far exceeded by Washington State Ferries, tugs, and barges). They are estimated to travel more than 300,000 miles (in more than 10,000 hours) annually in Puget Sound.

Since issuing its recommendations in 2018, the vessels working group and Governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force became aware of the development of several new fast-ferry and water taxi operations in Puget Sound. Kitsap Transit and King County currently operate fast ferries, with other communities planning similar operations to the south and north. These ferries make multiple roundtrips in the morning and afternoon, traveling at relatively high speeds in an area frequented by Southern Residents (especially in the fall).

The vessels working group expressed concerns about the elevated risk of collisions with Southern Residents as some of these vessels can travel faster than the top speed of orcas. The emergence of similar fast-ferry networks elsewhere in the world (e.g., the Canary Islands and Korea) has led to more ship strikes with whales and dolphins. The International Whaling Commission has recommended several precautionary measures to mitigate related risks.

The task force urgently recommends working with the fast-ferry and water taxi sector on potential bridge lookout policies and technological mitigations due to (1) the small size of the Southern Resident population, (2) evidence of collisions leading to the injury or death of Southern Residents, and (3) the comparatively high vulnerability of calves and other young whales to this potential threat.

Recent Progress

The Legislature passed a law in 2020, Revised Code of Washington 35.110 that requires cities that offer passenger-only ferry service to develop a plan that considers reducing impacts to water quality and prevention of whale strikes and underwater noise, all of which impact Southern Residents.

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