Emergency rules implemented to protect vulnerable whales

OLYMPIA – For the fourth year in a row, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) issued an emergency rule requiring commercial whale-watching vessels to stay at least one-half nautical mile away from vulnerable Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) this summer.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2025, nearly all vessels will be required to stay 1,000 yards, roughly that same distance, from any SRKW in Washington waters. WDFW asks boaters to Be Whale Wise and start giving these endangered whales that space now.

The vulnerable whales in poor body condition were identified using drone photography conducted by SR3 Sealife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research between June 2023 and May 2024. SR3 also reported that one whale, J22, appeared to be in the late stages of pregnancy.

J22 was also measured to be in late-stage pregnancy in May 2023, but likely lost that pregnancy by that June. Over two-thirds of Southern Resident killer whale pregnancies result in miscarriages or early mortality of calves that are born. Another SRKW born in December 2023, J60, went missing in January and is presumed dead.

J22 and 15 other whales are identified in the Department’s emergency rule as “vulnerable” and in need of additional protection. Of the 15 whales in poor body condition, nine are from J Pod and six are from L Pod. Five were also listed as vulnerable in 2023. Almost all these whales fall in the lowest 20% of previous measurements for their age and sex, putting them at a two- to three-times higher probability of subsequent mortality.

“It is very concerning that there are so many whales in poor condition, the most we have identified during our 17 years of measuring their body condition using photogrammetry from aerial photographs,” said Dr. Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director with SR3 SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research. “We will continue to monitor their condition and hope to see improvements.”

To see a full list of whales designated as vulnerable, reference the emergency rule. For more information the Department’s Commercial Whale Watching Program, reference WDFW’s website

“It is important that these adaptive conservation actions are based on the objective and quantitative metrics of whale health that our non-invasive photogrammetry data provide,” said Dr. John Durban, professor of conservation science at Oregon State University and collaborator with SR3.

New regulations for boaters in 2025

This week’s emergency rule offers SRKWs extra space and protection under WDFW’s Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program, by prohibiting motorized commercial whale-watching operators from approaching within a half-nautical mile bubble around the vulnerable whales and their pods.

Commercial whale watchers have been subject to the 1,000-yard buffer each whale-watching season since 2021, but beginning in 2025, nearly all vessels in Washington waters will have to observe the same buffer, thanks to legislation passed last year.

“These new rules are a significant step toward reducing the impact of vessel traffic on the Southern Residents,” said Julie Watson, Ph.D., killer whale policy lead with WDFW. “The science shows that Southern Resident killer whales need less underwater noise in order to successfully forage using echolocation, and the extra space provides quiet that is hard to come by during the busy Puget Sound boating season.”

The new rules apply to all recreational boaters in Washington waters, including paddlecraft like kayaks and paddleboards. While there are some differences between SRKW and Bigg’s (transient) orca populations, boaters are encouraged to stay far away from killer whales if they see them on the horizon.

“It can be very difficult to tell a resident and transient killer whale apart, especially from far away, and it can be challenging to gauge distance on the water,” Watson said. “If you see a killer whale, err on the side of caution and stay far away.”

Recognizing that boaters have questions about how to best comply with the new regulations, WDFW is developing materials to offer tools and tips on best practices. WDFW is also working with an advisory group to help roll out information about the new regulations.

As of Jan. 1, if a Southern Resident killer whale approaches you or surfaces within 1,000 yards of your vessel, you can slowly move away from the whale at a speed of 7 knots or less. If the whale is within 400 yards of your vessel, immediately disengage the transmission until the whales have moved out of the area, or turn the vessel off altogether if it’s safe to do so.

Current Be Whale Wise regulations 

While boaters are encouraged to stay 1,000 yards from the Southern Residents starting now, current Washington law requires vessels to stay at least 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales and at least 400 yards in front of and behind the whales. Vessels must also reduce their speed to 7 knots within one-half nautical mile of Southern Residents. 

Boaters are encouraged to watch for the Whale Warning Flag, an optional tool from the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, that lets others know that there might be whales nearby. If boaters see the flag, they should slow down and continue to follow Be Whale Wise regulations. 

For more details about steps recreational boaters can take to keep the whales – and themselves – safe, visit BeWhaleWise.org. The public is also encouraged to view killer whales at shore-based sites along the Whale Trail. More information, including optimal viewing locations along Puget Sound and the Washington coast, is available on The Whale Trail’s website

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife works to preserve, protect, and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish, wildlife, and recreational and commercial opportunities.