OLYMPIA, Wash. — A bill introduced in the Washington Legislature would ban unmanned aerial drones from venturing within 200 yards of an orca in the state’s waters. Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, has prefiled that bill in advance of the 2017 legislative session, which begins Jan. 9.
Lytton’s bill adds aerial drones to the list of vessels that must stay at least 200 yards from a southern resident orca, of which 81 spend much of their time in Puget Sound in three pods. That 200-yard buffer would be in place in in every direction, including vertically on top of a killer whale, the text of the bill says.
In the past two years, the use of aerial drones has increased for photographing and filming orcas because they make less noise than helicopters tackling the same tasks.
One scientific venture, based at the Vancouver Aquarium, blogged that it could not get a helicopter within 275 yards of an orca without the noise disturbing it. The scientists in that venture wrote a 2015 article about using drones to photograph and videotape killer whales in the Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems.
In 2014, the IFL Science web site published drone photos and videos of orcas swimming in Puget Sound and off the northern side of Vancouver Island. That drone approached to roughly 30 yards of the orcas. Roughly 150 to 200 orcas spend much of their time from northeast Vancouver Island to Southeast Alaska.
Last spring, KING5 TV reported that Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife agents ticketed a Mercer Island photographer for flying a drone 20 to 30 yards above a group of orcas near the San Juan Islands in 2014. The tickets was successfully fought because Washington’s law on orcas buffer zones was vague and did not mention aerial drones, KING-TV reported.
Update, Thursday evening: Rep. Lytton said the Mercer Island photographer being ticketed had nothing to do with her bill. Instead, it was a general concern for the laws keeping up with drone technology that promoted her bill. “One thing that has been brought up in my district (which includes the San Juan Islands) is concern over people launching drones off their boats. … It seems like something we need to start a conversation about,” Lytton said.
She noted that said Audubon Society members have also approached her about worries that drones might fly too close to eagles.