An orca leaps out of the water near a whale watching boat in the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands on July 31, 2015. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

An orca leaps out of the water near a whale watching boat in the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands on July 31, 2015. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Orca protection zone proposed off San Juan Island

PORT ANGELES — Petitioners have requested a no-go zone for motorboats off San Juan Island to protect southern resident orcas while opponents say that such a move would not solve the real problem— not enough salmon.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, is taking public comment through April 13 on a proposal to establish a whale protection zone on the west side of San Juan Island.

“You might as well have a whale protection zone in Iowa,” said Ken Balcomb, acting executive director and senior scientist for the Center for Whale Research at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. He said that the salmon-eating orcas are going elsewhere for food.

The petition filed by Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity and Project Seawolf asks that NOAA Fisheries establish a whale protection zone that extends three-quarters of a mile offshore of San Juan Island from Mitchell Point in the north to Cattle Pass in the south.

The area is similar to, but wider and longer, than that proposed in 2010, and dropped in 2011 when NOAA Fisheries finalized vessel traffic regulations but put a protection zone on hold because of opposition, saying that a no-go zone required more analysis.

The petition also asks for a quarter-mile buffer zone adjacent to the protection zone in which speed limits would be required, expanding the area to be protected to a mile from shore. And it suggests that a protected area also ought to be established from south of Lime Kiln Point State Park to Cattle Point.

Most motorized vessels would be banned under the proposal, which is requested from at least April through September, although petitioners would prefer it be year-round.

Southern resident orcas, an endangered group now down to 78 animals that live in the waters off Canada and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, face multiple threats, including pollution, lack of prey and impacts from boats, the groups say in their petition filed in November.

Petitioners say that because orcas depend upon sound for foraging, communicating, socializing and “likely other activities such as reproduction and traveling,” loud sounds, such as those produced by motor boats, can disrupt feeding and other behavior.

Southern resident orcas are “subject to a high risk of extinction because of human activities,” petitioners say, adding that the population “has virtually no tolerance for further decline.”

NOAA Fisheries said studies indicate that the orcas forage less in the presence of boat traffic.

The protection zone in a major feeding area for orcas is a common-sense approach that can be implemented immediately, petitioners say.

A no-go zone wouldn’t solve the problem, said Jeff Friedman, president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which represents 38 whale-watching businesses in the region.

“We’re against this petition and what they’re proposing, mainly because this is not going to help the whales. It’s a distraction from protecting the whales,” said Friedman, who is part-owner of Maya’s Legacy, based in Friday Harbor.

“The whale’s number one problem is a lack of food and this will do nothing to create more food for them,” he said Saturday.

“It will divert time, resources and tax dollars from efforts that could be putting more fish in the water for them. Where we should be putting our efforts and attention is on rebuilding their food supply.”

One such effort would be to take down dams from rivers, such as on the Snake River, Friedman said, and take other measures to rebuild salmon spawning habitat.

He pointed to the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, saying the demolition resulted in “salmon coming back faster than a lot of people expected.

“Unless we rebuild the salmon population, these whales are not going to survive and that’s where we need attention focused,” Friedman said.

Balcomb agreed with Friedman.

“The whales are not coming into that [proposed] whale protection zone as much because of lack of fish in that zone,” he said Sunday.

“The fish have been decreasing since 1976 with the Boldt Decision and free-for-all fisheries for about 10 years, which eliminated the big runs of fish,” he said.

The 1974 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Western Washington District known as the Boldt Decision allocates 50 percent of the annual catch to treaty tribes.

Petitioners propose a possible exception for fishing vessels.

“Specifically, petitioners respect tribal sovereignty and tribal rights to traditional fishing and cultural practices,” the petition says and recommends that NOAA Fisheries tailor rulemaking to avoid conflicts with lawful fishing activities.

Balcomb said the challenge to orca survival is multi-pronged, and that over-fishing, pollution and dams on U.S. rivers are more problematic than motorboats.

The petitioners are well-meaning, Balcomb said. “They want to save the whales and so do I but don’t want to obfuscate the issue.

“When there were a lot of salmon, there were a lot of fishing boats and it didn’t stop the whales,” Balcomb said.

“All the whales want is something to eat and they will go wherever it is.”

Balcomb said orcas are going as far afield as Monterey Bay, Calif., and southeast Alaska to find food.

“The Strait of Juan de Fuca is still an area they utilize a fair amount,” Balcomb said.

Friedman said that whale-watching business owners “are very much concerned about the whales and our guidelines go farther than the federal regulations.

“We have no-go zones that we have established and slow zones,” he said. “One of the primary factors is the speed of vessels. That’s why we have guidelines for slow speed.”

NOAA Fisheries said Thursday it is seeking input from industry, tribes, government agencies and others on the petition before deciding whether to proceed.

The southern resident orcas were listed as endangered in 2005. NOAA Fisheries says they’re among the species most at risk for extinction in the near future.

“We’re looking at every option and every opportunity to address the threats to these whales,” Barry Thom, administrator of NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, said in a statement Thursday.

“We’re all very concerned about the losses of the last year and we’re determined to work with our partners to pursue the action plan and turn that around.”

In 2011, NOAA Fisheries adopted rules requiring boats to stay 200 yards from the orcas and out of their path.

But the petitioners say those protections and voluntary measures haven’t been sufficient to protect the whales.

“The petition presents an opportunity to revisit [the no-go zone] idea and get input from the public on this type of protection for the whale,” Lynne Barre, NOAA Fisheries recovery coordinator for the southern resident killer whales, said in a statement.

Documents are available at http://tinyurl.com/PDN-no-gozone.

To comment via email, go to http://tinyurl.com/PDN-no-gozonecomment.

Comments also can be mailed or hand-delivered to Lynne Barre, NMFS West Coast Region, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115.

For more information, contact Barre at 206–526–4745.

________

Executive Editor Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3530 or at [email protected].

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

A female orca leaps from the water in Puget Sound west of Seattle on Jan. 18, 2014, as seen from a federal research vessel that had been tracking the animal. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

A female orca leaps from the water in Puget Sound west of Seattle on Jan. 18, 2014, as seen from a federal research vessel that had been tracking the animal. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

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