Proposed no-go zone rejected by MRC; advisory group backs bigger buffers, offers to spearhead development of 'no-go' alternative

Two kayakers rest in a kelp bed off Lime Kiln Point, June 30. This area is part of a boat and kayak no-go zone proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service to put more distance between vessels and killer whales. - Molly Neely-Walker
Two kayakers rest in a kelp bed off Lime Kiln Point, June 30. This area is part of a boat and kayak no-go zone proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service to put more distance between vessels and killer whales.
— image credit: Molly Neely-Walker

San Juan County's Marine Resources Committee on Tuesday offered its support for bigger buffers to better protect the Southern Resident killer whales from the hazards of encroaching vessels in the heavily-traveled waters of Haro Strait.

But the advisory panel didn't endorse the proposed half-mile no-go zone off the west side of San Juan Island. In fact, members of the MRC offered to take the lead in crafting an alternative, a so-called "integrated plan," which could bring about a level of protection the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expects to achieve with its proposed no-go zone.

According to the MRC's Johannes Krieger, an alternative plan might have broader community support.

"I think there's broad agreement that rules alone won't protect the whales," Krieger said. "It'll take a combination of education, enforcement and funding."

At the request of the County Council, the MRC canvassed the community for reaction to NOAA's proposed vessel regulations and on Tuesday weighed in with a list of recommendations in preparation for the council's input on the federal proposal. Council members are slated to hear reactions from islanders at one-hour public meeting Sept. 29, and will then meet the following week with the Friday Harbor Town Council in an effort to forge a unified front.

NOAA, which oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, is tasked with developing and implementing a recovery plan for the Southern Residents, which were listed as endangered under federal law in 2005. The population, which includes J,K and L pods, totals 85 animals, according to the latest count by the San Juan Island-based Center for Whale Research.

Despite fluctuations, the population has remained relatively stagnant over the past 40 years. In contrast, the population of Northern residents, typically found in the inland waters around the north end of Vancouver Island, has doubled over the same period.

Dwindling salmon runs, pollution and disturbance from vessels have been cited by NOAA as the primary threats to Southern Residents' health and survival.

In addition to a no-go zone, NOAA's proposal would prohibit vessels, including kayaks, from approaching within 200 yards of a killer whale — an increase of 100 yards — and from getting within 400 yards of the forward path of any killer whale. Government and research vessels, fishing boats and ships traveling in approved shipping lanes would be exempt from distance regulations. Tribal fisheries would be exempt from the no-go zone because of treaties between their governments and the United States.

NOAA will gather feedback on its proposal in a series of three two-hour public meetings, including an Oct. 5 meeting at the Grange Hall in Friday Harbor, beginning at 7 p.m.

As proposed, the no-go zone would prohibit most boats and kayaks from traveling the 12-mile stretch from Mitchell Bay to Eagle Point from May 1 through Sept. 30.

Kreiger of the MRC said the proposal has raised "considerable concern" among a number of islanders who believe that a no-go zone is unwarranted or premature, or that it provides an advantage to the nearby Canadian-based whale-watch fleet.

Krieger said the MRC supports the new distance regulations, which could go into effect by May 2010. But it also recommends that the council ask NOAA to set aside its no-go zone proposal for one year so county officials and the community will have enough time to develop an alternative.

An "integrated" alternative, he added, would rely on a combination of regulatory and voluntary measures, such as a permit system for commercial whale-watch operators, limited entry into a yet-to-be established whale sanctuary, and enhanced on-the-water enforcement and increased education for private boaters, kayakers and commercial kayak companies.

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