By Paul Gottlieb
Special to the Peninsula Daily News
OLYMPIA — An orca protection bill has come full circle, making 1,000-yard boater restrictions mandatory instead of voluntary.
The state House Appropriations Committee restored Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5371’s enforcement provisions to protect the fragile Southern Resident orca population by increasing the existing no-encroachment zone from 300 yards to 1,000 yards and imposing a $500 fine for violators.
It had passed the Senate 29-18, but had a tougher turn in the House.
Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles, House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee chair, said the only way 5371 could survive his panel and proceed to House Appropriations was to discard the penalty and make the restriction voluntary.
The panel approved the softer version 9-2.
The Appropriations Committee rebuffed that move Tuesday, restoring mandatory measures by a 20-9 vote. Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend voted with the majority, which sent the measure to the Rules Committee.
A more hard-line approach “seems to be the consensus, that people want stricter enforcement,” Chapman said Thursday, conceding, “I think it will pass the whole House pretty easily.”
Voluntary measures “have mixed results in terms of efficacy of the program,” Sen. Liz Lovelett, the bill’s sponsor, said Monday.
Her 40th district includes the San Juan Islands, where the Southern Resident orcas’ J, K and L pods forage and raise their young.
They are found mostly off Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, and also forage along the outer coast, according to the federal Marine Mammal Commission.
“Certainly allowing for this to be mandatory and ensuring that the whales have maximum distance possible from recreational boaters would be a much, first of all, stronger policy and second of all, I think have more meaningful impact on moving the needle on the survivability of the species,” Lovelett said.
On Tuesday, Lovelett’s 40th District colleague, Democratic Rep. Debra Lekanoff, an Appropriations Committee member, offered the amendment to 5731 that put teeth back into the proposal the same day the panel was scheduled to vote on it.
Lekanoff said residents across Washington had called for laws to protect the Southern Resident orcas. They currently stand at 73 members, according to the federal Marine Mammal Commission.
Boat interference impedes the orcas’ ability to raise their young and forage for food, and affects the overall health of the resident population, proponents say.
Challenges include rising water temperatures, diminishing numbers of Chinook salmon they feed upon, and disturbances from boaters who should be able to emulate whale-watch boats that already observe the 1,000-yard no-go zone, Lekanoff said.
“They’ve shown they can implement this law,” Lekanoff said.
“This is really focused on those who are disturbing the killer whales, who are harassing, who are being harmful to them, and this new law, if it gets passed, is really going to recognize the voice of the citizens.”
Chapman said Thursday that remaining changes worked into the bill by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and approved by Appropriations would require it to go back to the Senate for approval. The legislative session ends in two weeks, on April 23.
Lovelett said she has heard “loud and clear” from recreational boaters worried it would be “incredibly challenging” to estimate the 1,000-yard boundary.
“Regardless of whether it’s mandatory or voluntary, there will be an education period to make sure that people know what the rules are and how to comply.”
She said one alternative might make the restriction voluntary until the population shrinks to level that would prompt mandatory measures.
“It really does need to have that mandatory trigger or start mandatory altogether,” Lovelett said.
“Ultimately, we are pitting the very existence of one of our most iconic species in our state up against potentially being inconvenienced when you’re boating, and I think we have to do the right thing and intervene for the health and well-being of these creatures.”
Lovelett acknowledged it’s difficult to gauge 500 yards, “ so I don’t think we’re going to be pinpointing [1,000 yards] per se,” she said.
“It’s very easy to tell the difference between someone who finds themself in a situation where the whales are near them. It’s another thing to be harassing them, and Fish and Wildlife is very adept and distinguishing between those two,” she said.
“Bottom line is, where we want to go with this policy is that if you see a whale, you need to leave it alone.”
Appropriations Committee opponents included Republican Rep. Joe Schmick, who said the panel already had an agreed upon bill with voluntary measures that came from Chapman’s committee.
“You put 10 people out there, and we would all have a different idea of what a thousand yards is on the water,” Schmick said.
“Do I think we need to be protecting these species of whales? Absolutely.
“But yet there are people who are taking advantage, who are chasing these whales. Those are the ones we really ought to be concentrating here on. And I would like to see an emphasis put on that.”
Legislative Reporter Paul Gottlieb, a former senior reporter at Peninsula Daily News, can be reached at email@example.com.