Stronger protection for orcas - when they show up here again

Orca sightings in Puget Sound waters typically hit their peak this time of year, whether you’re perched on a boat deck or peering through binoculars on the shores of Tacoma or the Gig Harbor Peninsula. Even southern resident orcas, critically endangered as they are, can usually be seen during their summer feeding cycle, surfacing majestically in inland waters all the way south to Olympia.

Sadly, that hasn’t been the case so far this year. As June turns into July, the 76 reported members of the southern resident orca pods have stayed away in droves — another potential sign of an ecosystem in distress.

Don’t let your eyes deceive. Yes, whale-watching networks have buzzed with excited reports of black-and-white cetaceans on the move, from the San Juan Islands to the marine passages around Pierce and Kitsap counties.

But these are Biggs killer whales, a transient species that thrives by feasting on mammals such as the ubiquitous sea lion. They’re not the genetically distinct southern resident orcas who rely on an exclusive diet of chinook salmon and whose survival in the Salish Sea hangs on knife’s edge.

For southern residents not to show up represents a dramatic change in behavior, according to Pacific Northwest whale researchers. “That’s unheard of,” Deborah Giles, a University of Washington biologist, told KUOW radio. “It’s never been the case when southern residents weren’t spotted in their home waters in June.”

When they do return — we cling hopefully to the belief that it’s a matter of when, not if — a new state law will give them a stronger buffer against humankind.

At the urging of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, legislators this year adopted a series of sensible protections. Most notably, the minimum distance that boats must keep from the whales expands from 200 to 300 yards. Vessels are also banned from traveling faster than 7 knots within half a nautical mile of an orca.

Anyone who violates the rules should prepare to pay a $500 fine. You might think it’s worth the risk to snap a stunning up-close wildlife photo for your Facebook feed; we urge you to reconsider on behalf of a species at risk of extinction, which needs reduced exposure to boat noise and other human-generated pollution if it hopes to survive.

The changes went into effect in May. Other measures will become law on July 28, including a new commercial whale-watching license and fee structure that applies not only to motorized vessels, but also kayaks.

Another new law holds promise for orca recovery by addressing the problem of the whales’ declining food source. House Bill 1579 will make it easier for state regulators to shut down hydraulic or bulkhead projects that threaten salmon runs; as a tradeoff, it expands catch limits for other types of fish.

Legislators wisely took a pass on some of the more extreme task force ideas, such as an outright ban on whale-watching cruises. They took a more reasoned approach by calling for a panel of independent scientists to convene by 2021 and present further recommendations to state lawmakers by 2022.

For now, all who love Washington’s official state marine mammal can take heart that two new southern resident calves were spotted this year, and they appear to be healthy. Even the orcas’ absence from local waters this summer might not be terrible news; it could be a temporary adaptation to reported surges in chinook runs off the California and Canadian coasts.

But if you’re blessed to see one of these iconic beasts of the sea, be ready to obey the law and stay at least three football fields away. Respecting beauty, so powerful and yet so vulnerable, sometimes means admiring it from a distance.