New legislature from the Washington State House of Representatives seeks to keep our local orcas safe from drones and other unmanned vessels. Proposed at a hearing on January 9, 2017, House Bill 1031 would enact a 200-yard unmanned vessel-free zone around any southern resident orca whale. That distance applies to all directions, including vertical, so no more tourist video footage of orcas surfacing. Exceptions are, of course, in place for vessels used by law enforcement, vessel traffic services, or emergency situations, however no mention is made as of yet about rules regarding an orca surfacing unexpectedly beneath a drone, or an orca swimming towards a drone.
Drones have become increasingly popular with photographers in recent years due to their ability to capture up-close footage of marine wildlife; drones allow for a closer aerial approach than helicopters, because they eliminate the noise that frequently frightens away any animals before decent pictures can be obtained. Current regulations on buffer zones are relatively unclear. The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife ticketed a Mercer Island photographer in 2014 for flying a drone within 20 or 30 yards from a group of orcas, as reported by KING5 TV, but because the buffer zone laws are vague and made no allusion to aerial drones, the ticket was contested and dropped.
The no-drone bill was favorably received by the Washington Department of Ecology, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, and it has been referred to the Committee on Technology & Economic Development for further discussion. The bill, if made into a law, could be a big step toward clarifying the buffer zone laws regarding orcas and other native wildlife.