Fishers, whale watch operators, recreational boaters and conservationists turned out in force Wednesday night to oppose a federal plan to protect killer whales by closing off 6.2 square miles of water off San Juan Island each year.
A standing room-only crowd of more than 200 packed a room at the Seattle Aquarium to discuss a proposal by the National Marine Fisheries Service to establish a half-mile-wide “no-go zone” on the west side of San Juan Island from May 1 through September, when whales are typically present.
The regulations would also prohibit boats from coming within 200 yards — twice the current limit — of the whales and from being in the path of any killer whale within 400 yards.
Fisheries officials say the regulations are needed to protect the area’s Southern Resident killer whales, declared endangered in 2005. Scientists estimate there were once around 200 killer whales in the region; that number has now shrunk to 85, according to the fisheries service.
Boat traffic off San Juan Island causes behavioral changes in the whales, reduces their ability to communicate, increases the likelihood of them being struck by vessels and impedes their ability to hunt for food, fisheries service representative Lynne Barre said at the meeting.
“Our conclusion is that the current protections are not significant for the Southern Resident population,” Barre said.
But one after one, speakers assailed the proposed rules, saying they’re based on faulty science and that better enforcement of current regulations can sufficiently protect the whales. Speakers were almost universally opposed to the no-go zone proposal, saying there is little evidence to demonstrate that boats are harming the Southern Resident population.
Lynwood angler Wallace Cogley said the likelihood of a whale being struck by a boat is slim, and that boats that are fishing travel too slowly to make enough noise to impact the endangered mammals.
“Short of putting them in a bubble or in a swimming pool, I don’t know how they could be safer from boats,” Cogley said. “I think the no-go zone is much ado about nothing and I would really recommend it be reconsidered.”
Calling the data used to support the proposals “extremely flawed,” commercial fisherman Troy Liljeblad urged the fisheries service to consult with the divergent groups united in their opposition to the proposals.
“You have managed to coordinate groups that do not like each other. They’re cooperating. Get a clue,” he said. “It is imperative that you take another look at your data and talk to people who are out there every day. The things you’re telling us, we’ve observed on a regular basis not to be true.”
The regulations would make some exceptions for government and scientific vessels, tribal and commercial boats, and for people accessing privately owned property. But they would otherwise apply to all boats, motorized or not, including small craft such as canoes and kayaks.
David Lednicer, who regularly kayaks off the west coast of San Juan Island, said the regulations would effectively put the area off-limits to him unless he’s willing to kayak far from shore. Lednicer said he is hardly a threat to orcas, who have frequently approached his kayak, swimming under and around it.
“Paddling at two to three knots, I cannot chase an orca,” Lednicer said. “In fact, I can barely move out of their way.”
Even conservationists spoke against the proposals. They included orca expert Ken Balcomb, executive director and research biologist for the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. Balcomb, who’s spent decades studying orcas, said the whales are comfortable moving around large numbers of boats. He said he’s not aware of a boat ever striking a whale in this area.
“My vote is that we take no action and that we all shelve (the proposed regulations) in our conceptual library somewhere between Alice in Wonderland and Don Quixote,” Balcomb said, to applause.
Heather Trim, a project coordinator with conservation group People for Puget Sound, said the organization supports the 200-yard barrier and the requirement that boats stay out the path of whales. But Trim said the no-go zone is not backed by scientific evidence and carries too many unintended consequences. She recommended the fisheries service convene a group of vessel operators to come up with a better plan to protect and increase the region’s orca population.
“Basically, our bottom line is, where is the orca recovery in the orca recovery plan?” Trim said.
Speakers also included several owners of whale watching companies in Washington and British Columbia, who said the regulations will devastate their businesses.
The Pacific Whale Watching Association, an industry trade group, is proposing alternate regulations that would establish a 7-knot speed restriction year-round on the west side of San Juan Island rather than the no-go zone, prohibit boats from being “negligently” within 100 yards of the Southern Resident population and require vessels to stay out of the whales’ path.
Cedric Towers, who owns Vancouver Whale Watch, said the 100-yard barrier provides boats the proximity needed for education. “My naturalists — all professional biologists — really take pride in the fact that they can educate people,” he said.
“When we start to go to 200 yards, our educational ability, the value, is lost. We’ve asked people if they’d be interested in watching from 200 yards and they say no. My business is going to be lost. I will be out of business.”
One of the few voices in favor of the no-go zone was Suzanne Franklin, who said she owns property on the west side of San Juan Island and regularly sees whale watching boats making a beeline for orcas.
“I can see that unless there is state enforcement in the area when whales are present, it’s a zoo on the west side,” Franklin said. “I know it’s illegal to pursue an endangered species, yet I see that going on every day.”
Wednesday’s meeting followed one last Thurdsay in Anacortes, at which dozens of speakers railed against the proposals. A third and final public meeting is scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m. next Monday, Oct. 5, at the Grange Hall in Friday Harbor.
Public comments on the regulations are being accepted until Oct. 27 and can be submitted by email or regular mail. Additional information is available here.