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To protect orcas near San Juan Island, feds may restrict boat traffic

How to bring southern resident killer whales back from the brink of extinction

NOAA Fisheries biologists talk about southern resident killer whales, a species that makes its home around the San Juan Islands in Washington state.
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NOAA Fisheries biologists talk about southern resident killer whales, a species that makes its home around the San Juan Islands in Washington state.

The federal government is considering a petition that calls for a whale protection zone on the west side of San Juan Island.

Three groups have asked NOAA Fisheries to establish an area that would restrict most motorized vessels in order to protect endangered southern resident killer whales from noise and other disturbances.

Puget Sound orcas face multiple threats – including pollution, lack of prey and impacts from vessels – but the zone is a common-sense approach that can be implemented immediately, Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity and Project Seawolf said in their petition filed in November. The whales depend on natural sounds for foraging, communicating, and navigating, and a zone would provide less disturbance, they said.

NOAA Fisheries considered a similar no-go zone in 2011 but declined to move forward, citing strong opposition at the time.

“What that achieves for the whales is a place of quiet where they can successfully hunt, communicate, and socialize, which is very important for their recovery,” said Scott West, executive director of the Orca Relief Citizens Alliance, in an interview with King 5.

The move could limit charter boat companies that specialize in whale watching excursions.

Jeff Friedman, U.S. president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, told King 5 TV the petition does not address the major issue facing southern resident killer whales.

“The primary challenge they face in recovery is a lack of food, specifically salmon, Chinook salmon,” Friedman said.

NOAA Fisheries said studies indicatethe whales forage less in the presence of boat traffic, and boat noise may disrupt the echolocation clicks the whales use to find food.

The orcas that spend time in the inland waters of Washington state aren’t recovering, years after being listed as endangered in 2005, the groups said. With the loss of seven animals in 2016, the population is down to 78.

“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.”

NOAA Fisheries considered a similar no-go zone in 2011 but declined to move forward, citing strong opposition .

“The petition presents an opportunity to revisit that 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.

In 2011, the agency adopted rules requiring boats to stay 200 yards from the whales and out of their path.

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

They’re proposing a zone larger and wider than the one considered in 2011. It would extend three-quarters of a mile off San Juan Island from Mitchell Point in the north to Cattle Pass in the south.

They also are asking for an additional quarter-mile buffer to give the whales “more quiet and rest” in their key habitat area and for the rules to apply between April 1 to Sept. 30.

HOW TO COMMENT

NOAA Fisheries is seeking public input as it decides whether to accept the petition and take action. To comment on the petition, go to westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov. Comment must be received by April 13.

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