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Conservation groups petition feds to create safe zone for orcas near San Juan Island

Southern Resident orcas, including a calf, in December 2015. Two conservancy groups have asked the Obama administration to create a “whale-protection zone” along the western coast of San Juan Island, which would restrict boat traffic in that area.
Southern Resident orcas, including a calf, in December 2015. Two conservancy groups have asked the Obama administration to create a “whale-protection zone” along the western coast of San Juan Island, which would restrict boat traffic in that area.

A pair of conservation groups asked the Obama administration Friday to approve what they called a “whale-protection zone” for endangered orcas living near San Juan Island.

Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity said their plan for a 10-square-mile zone along the western coast of the island would mitigate vessel noise that keeps Southern Resident orcas from feeding and communicating.

Southern Resident killer whales stay in Puget Sound but migrate along the West Coast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Officials counted only 78 in 2014.

The proposal includes restricting vessels in the zone to a no-wake speed limit from April through September. If the proposal is approved, it could mean big changes for the whale-watching industry.

Advocates say a protection zone along the island is the quickest and easiest way to slow the whales’ population decline, the two groups said in a statement.

But not everyone agrees. Scott West of the Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance and Michael Harris of Orca Conservancy tackled the issue of a protection zone in a discussion with KIRO 7 News. Harris said the proposed zone is a “distraction” from more immediate concerns, like the lack of salmon for the whales to eat.

West said he agreed that food is the No. 1 priority for restoring the orcas’ population, but added that the protection zone could help address that indirectly.

“They use sound the way we use sight, and it’d be the same if I put a hood over your head and told you to go feed yourself,” West told KIRO 7. “You might be able to fumble through but you’re going to be very much inhibited. Same thing is true with these masking sort of sounds – it limits their abilities.”

Harris added that the implications the restrictions could have for the whale-watching industry could end up sending more people to see the whales in captivity.

“If we do something that really, seriously, negatively impacts the whale-watch industry, then that’s going to negatively impact the alternative to SeaWorld – the alternative to going to see whales in captivity, which is awful, we both agree,” Harris said.

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

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