By Steve Wehrly, Journal reporter
In 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed a "no-go zone" off the west side of San Juan Island to help protect the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.
After local whale-watch companies, kayakers and other voiced substantial, even heated, opposition to that "no-go" plan, the Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, abandoned it in 2011 in favor of speed limits, increased buffers and public education efforts.
On Dec. 5, the Fisheries Service put the issue back on the table.
"In the final rule, we decided to gather additional information and conduct further analysis and public outreach on the concept," said Lynne Barre, branch chief of the Fisheries Service Protected Resources Division, in a recent letter to the San Juan County Council.
At a meeting of the Marine Resources Committee in Friday Harbor, Barre said that the Fisheries Service budget includes money for public outreach that needs to be used before March of next year. She suggested that NOAA wants to sponsor a conference to discuss the "no-go zone" and some of the "70 different suggestions" various people and groups have made for further protecting the whales, listed as endangered under federal law since 2005.
"This would be a conversation, not a workshop for setting policy," Barre said.
MRC Chairman John Aschoff and several committee members support such a meeting, as did San Juan County councilwoman Lovel Pratt. Councilman Rich Peterson, though not opposed to the meeting, suggested any decision be deferred until new council members Bob Jarman and Marc Forlenza joined the council next year. Pratt, Peterson and Councilman Howie Rosenfeld all were in attendance at the Dec. 5 MRC's meeting.
Peterson also distributed copies of a resolution passed without dissent by the county council Dec. 4 that states: "The County's position regarding the "No-Go Zone" as proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric (Administration) will be that position articulated by the San Juan County Council and not that of any of its subcommittees or advisory groups."
As proposed by Fisheries three years ago, the half-mile no-go zone would extend along the west side of San Juan Island, from Mitchell Bay at the north to Eagle Point at the south, and be in effect from the beginning of May through the end of September. It would apply to all types of vessels, including kayaks. It was offered up as part of the recovery plan that the federal agency was tasked with developing to help protect and to restore the population of Southern residents.
Several audience members expressed opposition to the no-go zone idea and to the proposed conference. Bill Wright, co-owner of whale watching company San Juan Safaris, said "NMFS should stop pushing no-go zones and instead work on salmon recovery and enforcing the current rules wherever whales are foraging."
Wright later said he wants to remind the NOAA Fisheries Service that "the county council, the town council, the visitors bureau and the chamber of commerce all told them to take the 'no-go zone' issue off the table."