Sgt. Russ Mullins knows it’s only a matter of time before people start unpacking the drones they received for Christmas and start launching them over the water.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife agent just wants to keep the remote-controlled aircraft away from Washington’s endangered population of orcas, also known as Southern resident killer whales.
“It’s a growing trend we are trying to head off at the pass, so to speak,” said Mullins, whose enforcement region includes the San Juan Islands in the northern Puget Sound.
A spring report from the Federal Aviation Administration estimated that 2.5 million drones would be sold in 2016, with drone sales projected to rise to 7 million annually by 2020.
While Mullins said Washington state has issued only two tickets for drones flying too close to orcas, officials worry that rising use of drones by hobbyists and photographers could lead to one of the devices crashing into one of the endangered animals, or creating noise or other disturbances that would disrupt the whales’ habits.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that they are aware of the presence of drones,” said Michael Harris, who just finished a five-year stint as the executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “How much it alters their behavior, we don’t know yet.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that (the orcas) are aware of the presence of drones. How much it alters their behavior, we don’t know yet.
Michael Harris, who just finished a five-year stint as the executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association
A bill introduced in advance of the 2017 legislative session would clarify state law to say that drones, also known as unmanned aerial systems, can’t come within 200 yards of Southern resident killer whales.
The 200-yard buffer already applies to boats, vessels and other objects that might approach the animals.
However, in a 2015 case in San Juan County, the attorney for a drone-operating photographer argued the word “object” may not be specific enough to cover drones that fly near orcas. The prosecutor later dropped the case.
“The question was, does that encompass objects in the air or in the water?” said Randall Gaylord, the San Juan County prosecutor whose office ultimately dismissed the $1,025 citation.
An opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office — issued Friday at Gaylord’s request — said the state’s prohibition on objects coming within 200 yards of orcas should also be interpreted to apply to drone aircraft.
Yet Gaylord said changing the law to make that clearer would help prosecutors and law enforcement agents working in the field.
“A list of things that need to stay away from orcas would be helpful,” he said. “It is very hard for the regulators to know what they’re dealing with out there, and the public should know what is expected.”
State Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes, said the dismissed case in San Juan County wasn’t what prompted her to introduce legislation regulating orcas and drones.
Overall, she said she’s been hearing more and more concerns in her coastal district about people launching drones from boats.
“I believe we should start a discussion about how we manage a technology that has evolved faster than our policy,” she said.
“At the end of the day, I think it is reasonable that drones should have the same parameters as whale-watching vessels or private vessels.”
Researchers and emergency workers using drones would be exempt from the 200-yard requirement set by Lytton’s bill.
According to the Center for Whale Research, the Southern resident orca population declined in the 1960s and 1970s due to the whales being captured for marine park exhibits.
Since 2005, the animals have been on the endangered species list. Only 79 live in the wild today, compared with about 200 in the late 1800s.