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Who's in charge? Council, MRC at odds over 'work window' in marine waters

By Steve Wehrly/Journal reporter

The executive committee of the Marine Resources Committee has been asked to meet with three members of the San Juan County Council to discuss the division of responsibilities between the two bodies and the authority of the council to set policy, according to council Vice-Chairman Rich Peterson.

Two issues — "no-go zones" for orca protection and the work closure period to protect juvenile salmon in San Juan County — have raised concern on the council that the MRC's "valuable role in protecting and enhancing the marine environment doesn't conflict with the council's policy setting role," said councilman Marc Forlenza, Friday Harbor, who will be attending the meeting along with Peterson and Patty Miller, East Orcas.

At the Dec. 5 MRC meeting in Friday Harbor, Peterson came to the meeting with a council resolution stating, "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."

The National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency of NOAA, sent Lynne Barre, branch chief of its Protected Resources Division, to the Dec. 5 meeting to propose a public outreach program to reconsider its 2009 proposal to ban all boats from a half-mile-wide strip of water along much of the west side of San Juan Island, where Orcas cruise during the summer.

Several people attending the meeting spoke up against any reconsideration of the no-go zone, and so far NMFS has not announced any outreach meetings on the issue.

At the same Dec. 5 meeting, the MRC approved a letter to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on the "work window closure period" under the department's hydraulic code rules.

In 2005, as part of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan, the DFW designated the period between March 15 and June 14 as the time that near-shore construction throughout Puget Sound would be restricted or even closed. The MRC letter proposed "WDFW and the San Juan MRC work together again to revise the work window closure period . . .  to better reflect the time that juvenile salmon are actually in our waters."

The letter continued: "Recent local research documents that juvenile salmon are present in our area at least from March 15 through October 31. Therefore, we request that WDFW revise the work window closure period to better reflect the conditions in the San Juan Islands."

Philip Anderson, Director of DFW, responded that DFW "is current working through the process to update the hydraulic code rules, including the prohibited work times in saltwater areas."

The letter concluded that the DFW's Habitat Program Protection Division would "contact the MRC to schedule a meeting in February to discuss the work closure window."

Councilman Peterson termed the letter and its advocacy of an extended work window closure "problematic."

"After extensive testimony and deliberation, the county council decided not to extend the 'critical areas' designation to all San Juan County shorelines," Peterson said. "This letter suggests that substantial 'critical areas' protections should be imposed on much of the shorelines in the county. The policy underlying that kind of action should be proposed by the council responding to the advice of the MRC, not by the MRC itself."

Peterson noted that the "local research" referred to in the MRC's letter included studies performed by E.M.Beamer and K.L. Fresh, some of which had been considered by the council, but not included as "best available science, during the Critical Areas Ordinance process. Peterson said he wants more information on the validity of the Beamer and Fresh studies and on potential damage that construction during prime summer work times would cause on migrating juvenile salmon.

Newly installed council Chairman Jamie Stevens commented, "the Marine Resources Committee performs a valuable and important service for the council and the county. I expect the smaller group to bring back to the council a plan for expanded communications between the council and the MRC."

Peterson said he expects that he, Forlenza and Miller would meet with the MRC executive committee within the next few days, and said the subject of advisory committees, including the MRC, would be topics for the annual council retreat on Monday, Jan. 14.

 

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