To the person in the white powerboat that was chasing orcas last Saturday off San Juan Island:
You may not realize that under new regulations which took effect in May, all boats are required to stay twice as far away from Puget Sound’s killer whale population as previously required. That’s 200 yards instead of the previous 100. Boats must also stay 400 yards out of the path of any oncoming whales.
I assume you weren’t aware of the rules. That’s the only plausible explanation I can come up with for why you gunned your engine and chased after several of the orcas, approaching them at close range while a dozen or so other boats, including the one I was on, watched from a respectful distance.
At that point, you effectively turned what had been a majestic treat into a distressing scene of harassment. Several people on our boat wondered if your crew might have been feeding the orcas to keep them hanging around for your entertainment. They also wondered, as did I, what the hell you could possibly have been thinking.
Others must have wondered too — as we watched, a boat from the Soundwatch Boater Education Program, run by The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, approached your boat. We were told that at least two people had called in to the organization to report what your boat was doing. I hope whatever they said to you made an impression.
A little background for you: In an effort to protect the region’s Southern Resident killer whales (which were declared endangered in 2005), the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed last year to establish a “no-go” zone on the west side of San Juan Islan, where you saw those orcas.
If the regulation had been implemented, 6.2 square miles of water in that area would have been closed off to boats from May through September, when whales are present. In other words, neither you nor I would have been able to enjoy that spectacular show the orcas put on last weekend.
But in the face of widespread opposition, Fisheries backed away from the proposal and instead implemented the current regulations. They were needed, Fisheries said, because some boaters were ignoring the previous 100-yard limit. The limit was just a guideline, but has now been replaced by a law punishable by fines of up to $20,000.
Proponents of the new regulations say they’re needed to protect orcas from boat noise that can reduce their ability to find food and communicate with each other. Others argue that a shortage of food, not boat noise, is to blame for the orcas’ threatened state.
I’m not a scientist, so I can’t tell you where the truth lies. Regardless, it seems like a no-brainer to understand that chasing orcas in your boat in close proximity is a bad idea at best and harmful at worst. Imagine somone busting into your house and chasing you around — not the best analogy, perhaps, but you get my drift. Whether it’s against the law or not, shouldn’t you know better?
The last time I talked with someone at Fisheries, he said the department was going to reconsider the proposed no-zone in a year or two and may still implement it. In the meantime, it plans to focus on education over enforcement in the hope that boaters would get informed and play by the rules.
So my request to you is this: Have a little respect for the environment you’re living in. Orcas are wild animals, not party entertainment.
If the no-go zone ultimately goes into effect, you will shoulder a little of the blame, however small. So do the right thing and don’t ruin it for everyone else, okay?