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County Council to NOAA: Emphasize enforcement in killer whale protection program

San Juan County Council members Jan. 5 signed a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) urging the agency not to establish a “No-Go Zone” for watercraft on the west side of San Juan Island, but rather to emphasize enforcement primarily of more targeted regulations to protect the endangered Southern resident killer whales.

The letter’s top request reads, “The Council urges NOAA to consider enforcement of regulations protecting whales to be its top priority, and strongly urges that enforcement resources be based in San Juan County.” It adds that extending the buffer zone for watercraft approaching whales from 100 yards to 200 yards, as proposed, would not be necessary if the current buffer were strictly enforced.

Citing the problems — including exhaust fumes and engine noise stressing the whales, scaring off prey fish and interfering with the whales' ability to use their echolocation to locate food — NOAA’s proposed rules would establish a half-mile-wide zone along the west side of San Juan Island where most vessels would be forbidden to enter between May 1 and the end of September. (The proposed regulations provide exceptions for commercial fishing boats, research vessels, cargo ships in shipping lanes and landowners accessing adjacent private property.)

The council’s letter cites, among other things, the potential economic impact of the regulations on the local economy and the lack of evidence that non-motorized craft create problems for the whales.

Rather than the absolute ban, the council is urging the establishment of “Go Slow” zones 400 yards around killer whales anywhere in the state’s inland waters and creation of a strong educational program for boaters to reinforce the impact of the enforcement program.

A copy of the letter is online.

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