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Orcas
Orcas, also known as killer whales, swim in and around Puget Sound with the Seattle skyline in the background. (NOAA Photo)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Would you be in trouble if an orca popped up out of Puget Sound beneath your drone? Should other maritime critters, such as humpback whales, be given their own drone buffer zones, as well?

These questions surfaced at a hearing Tuesday on a Washington House bill that would ban unmanned aerial drones from venturing within 200 yards of an orca in the state’s waters — including vertically. Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, introduced the bill.

Rep. Kristine Lytton introduced the bill to keep drones at least 200 feet away from orcas.

“There are lot of questions about this in my district,” she told the House Technology & Economic Development Committee. “My intention is to keep drones from an icon of our state.”

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.

No one testified for or against the bill Tuesday. However, the Washington Department of Ecology, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington indicated on a sign-in sheet that they support the bill.

After the hearing, Mike Hobbs, deputy chief for enforcement for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the bill would clarify what’s currently a fuzzy area of law for those enforcing the 200-yard buffer around an orca.

Committee member Rep Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, questioned whether the bill accounted for an orca suddenly surfacing beneath a low-flying drone or an orca speeding toward a drone. The bill’s language currently does not address those scenarios.

Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon and chairman of the committee, said: “I’d like to add as many marines species as possible to the bill.” He cited humpback whales as an example. Lytton is open to modifying in her bill.

In a related matter, the Washington Attorney General’s Office issued a recent opinion that the current law on orca buffer zones could be interpreted to apply to drones. In the past two years, the use of aerial drones has increased for photographing and filming orcas because they make less noise than helicopters doing 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 approximately 30 yards of the orcas. About 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 ticket was successfully fought because Washington’s law on orcas buffer zones was vague and did not mention aerial drones.

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