Killer whales have special protection in Canadian and U.S. waters. Be sure to educate yourself about new protections, including regulations with specific distances and recommendations for viewing killer whales.
The Salish Sea is a transboundary region overseen by Canada, the United States and Washington State. Here is a broad look at the regulations regarding operating vessels around killer whales, specifically Southern Resident killer whales or orcas. Additionally, all marine mammals are protected in Canada and the United States. Humans and vessels are required to stay 100 metres/yards away from all other marine mammals and 200 metres/yards from whales, dolphins or porpoises if they are resting or with their calf.
United States Regulations
In the US, Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) are listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In 2019, Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee signed into law new regulations governing whale watching in the State of Washington. Key management actions include:
- Maintain a minimum approach distance of
- 300 yards from SRKW on either side.
- 400 yards out of SRKW’s path/in front and behind the whales.
- Reduce speed to under 7 knots when within 1/2 nm of the whales.
- Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.
In Canada, Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) are listed as Endangered under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) and managed, in part, under the Marine Mammal Regulations of Canada’s Fisheries Act. Additionally, under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 the Minister of Transport Canada has the authority to make regulations respecting the protection of the marine environment from the impacts of navigation and shipping activities. In April 2023, the Government of Canada announced updated management measures to support the recovery of the Southern Residents, including a range of mandatory and voluntary measures designed to support prey availability and reduce physical and acoustic disturbance to SRKW. Key management actions for 2023 include:
- Vessels must stay 400m away and must not position themselves in the path of killer whales in southern BC coastal waters between Campbell River and just north of Ucluelet until May 31, 2024, as per the Interim Order enacted under the Canada Shipping Act.
- The Marine Mammal Regulations are in effect year-round. This requires staying:
- 200 metres away from all killer whales in Canadian Pacific waters other than those described above
- 200 metres away from all whales, porpoises and dolphins when in resting position or with a calf
- 100 metres for other whales, porpoises and dolphins
- The following areas will be closed to salmon fishing for both commercial and recreational harvesters:
- Swiftsure Bank and Juan de Fuca Strait: Following the expiry of chinook non-retention measures until October 31, 2023, in parts around Swiftsure Bank (closure start date to be communicated in June).
- Gulf Islands: This area’s closures will go into effect following the first confirmed presence of SRKW after May 1 and will be in place until November 30.
- Mouth of the Fraser River: Closures in place from August 1 to September 30, 2023.
- Interim Sanctuary Zones (ISZs) are in effect from June 1 to November 30 in key portions of Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat to further reduce acoustic and physical disturbance from vessels (see map for more details).
- Vessel traffic (including fishing) will be prohibited in ISZs off North Pender and Saturna Islands as per the Interim Order enacted under the Canada Shipping Act. Some exceptions will apply, including vessels involved in Indigenous fishing for food, social or ceremonial purposes and vessels involved in emergency response.
- From June 1 until November 30, all vessels are required to slow down to a maximum of 10 knots around Swiftsure Bank (Some limited exceptions may apply. This measure is mandatory and separate from the voluntary slowdowns coordinated by the ECHO Program. See map for more details):
- In a portion of Subarea 121-1
- In portions of Subareas 121-1, 121-2 and 21-0: near the mouth of the Nitinat River from Carmanah Point to Longitude 125 degrees west
Learn more about all of the 2023 management measures here.
Trans-Boundary Guidelines for the US and Canada
Apply to all whales, porpoises, dolphins, seals, sea lions, any animal hauled out and nesting birds.
- DO NOT APPROACH or position your vessel closer than 100 metres/yards to any other marine mammals or birds, whether on the water or on land.
- BE CAUTIOUS, COURTEOUS and QUIET when around areas of known or suspected marine wildlife activity, in the water or at haul-outs and bird colonies on land. Especially from May to September during breeding, nesting and seal pupping seasons.
- LOOK in all directions before planning your approach or departure from viewing wildlife.
- SLOW DOWN: reduce speed to less than 7 knots when within a half mile or 1000 metres/yards of the nearest marine mammal and reduce your engine’s noise and vessel’s wake.
- ALWAYS approach and depart from the side, moving parallel to their direction of the animal’s travel. If the animal(s) are approaching you, cautiously move out of the way and avoid abrupt course changes. DO NOT approach from the front or from behind.
- IF your vessel is not in compliance with the 100 metres/yards approach guideline (#1), place engine in neutral and allow animals to pass.
- PAY ATTENTION and move away, slowly and cautiously at the first sign of disturbance or agitation from any animal.
- STAY on the OFFSHORE side of the whales when traveling close to shore.
- ALWAYS avoid going through groups of porpoises or dolphins and hold course and reduce speed gradually to discourage bow or stern-riding.
- LIMIT your viewing time to 30 minutes or less. This will reduce the cumulative impact of all vessels and give consideration to other viewers.
- DO NOT disturb, swim with, move, feed or touch any marine wildlife. If you are concerned about a potentially sick, stranded animal, or entangled animal, contact your local stranding network.
The noise and close proximity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)/drones can disturb wildlife in the water or on land. Drones can disturb marine mammals, so are discouraged for viewing marine mammals unless appropriate permits are obtained. To prevent disturbances from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV/drone) over the marine environment, operators must use extreme caution. Fly during daylight hours, keep your drone in sight and limit your viewing time to reduce the cumulative impact.
If viewing marine mammals from the air using a drone:
(1) maintain a 1,000-foot minimum altitude within a 0.5 nautical mile (approx. 3,000ft radius) of a marine mammal, and
(2) avoid flight maneuvers around marine mammals (on land or in the water), as these actions may cause stress or alter animal behavior.
Operators should note applicable US FAA regulations and Canadian Aviation Regulations for the airspace in which they are operating. Know and follow all local regulations – although these rules are technically guidelines in the US, in Canada it’s the law.