Protecting whales during oil spills

Southern Resident Killer Whale
Why it Matters

Every year, 20 billion gallons of oil is transported through and near Puget Sound and Salish Sea waterways, posing the risk of a major oil spill. Inbound oil tankers move crude oil to five major refineries in the Puget Sound, which then moves the refined oil products to other destinations. Crude and refined oil is increasingly moved by both railroad and petroleum pipelines along major rivers and transportation corridors. These corridors often follow and cross over our waterways, creating the risk of a potential spill.

Oil spills are toxic, and can cause both acute and chronic exposure to whales. They are also potentially destructive to prey populations and may adversely impact whales by reducing food availability. The transport of large volumes of various kinds of oil, and the risk of major spills, poses a threat to the recovery of our endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs).

Governor's directive

In 2018, Governor Inslee signed Executive Order 18-021, directing state agencies to take several immediate actions to benefit Southern Resident Killer Whales. One of these actions was to develop a curriculum for the use of the whale watching industry as Vessels of Opportunity during an oil spill. This curriculum plan was completed in April of 2018.

Permits and regulations 

Deterrence of killer whales could impact their health and must be consistent with federal laws that protect SRKWs. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) prohibits harassing, harming, or killing marine mammals, but has an exemption for federal or state employees if the harassment to marine mammals is necessary for the health and safety of the animals or for human safety. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) also prohibits harassment, harm, or killing of listed species, but does not have a specific exemption for federal and state employees.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has authorized SRKW deterrence activities through a scientific research and enhancement permit held by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. The permit has been analyzed and is consistent with protections of the MMPA and ESA and covers oil spill-related actions in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. Under oversight by Federal and State agencies and in accordance with the permitting requirements, we are building our capacity to implement tactics to protection SRKW's from oil spills. These actions occur under a Unified Command. If the public is interested in supporting these actions, their best option is to sign up as a Vessel of Opportunity (VOO).  

Vessels of Opportunity Program

We are seeking vessel operators who would like to register their vessels and crew expertise in our Vessel of Opportunity (VOO) Program. If you are a skilled vessel operator with knowledge of our local waters and a desire to help protect our state’s whale populations in the event of an oil spill, we are interested in your support for a statewide initiative.

Vessel operators could be trained to conduct wildlife surveillance and deterrence in the event of an oil spill. Vessels used during a response can expect to be compensated by the spiller for the work conducted.

You can register to be a VOO by visiting www.oilspills101.wa.gov.

Once you have submitted your registration, the system will reply with a “thank you” and explain we will be contacting you shortly for a follow up.

If you prefer to register by phone or email, please contact Shawn Zaniewski at 360-951-1668 or shawn.zaniewski@ecy.wa.gov.

What's next

Government agencies involved in this project include NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Washington Department of Ecology. Spill response and whale deterrence trainings are under development and outreach to local, commercial, and recreational vessels, is ongoing.