Boats and whales: Give orcas the right-of-way | Guest column


The endangered Southern Resident orca whales need our help. They need less pollution and many more salmon to eat and they need fewer boats disturbing them and making underwater noise.

For more than 30 years, The Whale Museum has been observing the Southern Residents and has operated the Soundwatch “on-the-water-boater-education” program for nearly 20 years. Soundwatch has worked with the whale-watch industry and the U.S. and Canadian governments to collaboratively develop “Be Whale Wise Guidelines” (www.bewhalewise.org). Some of these guidelines have already become Washington state law. Now, the federal government is seeking to create federal vessel regulations, based in part on these industry supported guidelines.

Monitoring research by Soundwatch illustrates that voluntary guidelines don’t work and that the 2008 Washington state vessel regulation also is not working, especially when applied to private boaters. Although implementation of the state law did tend to increase the average distance between whales and boats, too many incidents still occur. (Of the 2,572 likely violations observed in 2009 by Soundwatch, 72 percent were committed by private boaters, 8 percent by Canadian operators, 4 percent by U.S. commercial operators, 4 percent by kayaks and the remaining percentages by aircraft, marine fishery vessels, research boats, etc. Visit www.whalemuseum.org/programs/soundwatch/vesselincidents.html).

The Whale Museum is keenly aware that enforcement of the current Washington vessel law has been woefully inadequate. While new federal regulations will not go into effect next summer we are encouraged that the Coast Guard has agreed to our request to increase their enforcement presence on the water during the peak whale watching season.

An immediate action to help protect our orcas from disturbance by vessels would be to dramatically increase funding for the enforcement of the current law. What an opportunity this is for the Obama administration to help the whales by providing support for our state and local enforcement teams!

Since the National Atmospheric and Atmospheric Administration first published its proposed vessel management regulations, The Whale Museum has studied the proposal and performed extensive outreach to private stakeholders, agencies and tribal governments. The Whale Museum’s recommendations are calibrated to help the whales and to respond to concerns expressed by local boaters and commercial interests.

Here are the key suggestions that we have submitted to NOAA.

1. The Whale Museum supports NOAA's proposal to require that vessels stay farther away from orcas. We recommend that the approach restriction be set at 150 yards, which is an increase over the current 100 yards that is in Washington State law but less than the 200 yards proposed by NOAA.

2. The Whale Museum recommends that the orcas’ critical foraging area on the west side of San Juan Island be considered a Special Vessel Management Area. This is an alternative to the NOAA-proposed blanket no-go zone. The Whale Museum recommends a three-component approach towards reducing vessel-whale interactions by giving "right of way" to the whales in this congested area.

San Juan Island Special Vessel Management Area
— SLOW ZONE for all vessels, requiring vessels to travel at less than 7 knots from Mitchell Point to Cattle Pass when within half-mile of shore, in effect year-round.

— WHALE RIGHT OF WAY ZONE for motorized vessels (human-powered craft exempt) when whales are present between May 1 and Sept 30 from Mitchell Point to Eagle Point. Vessels shall be required to move off shore to quarter-mile (440 yards) when whales are "present." "Whales present" is defined as when a whale is within quarter-mile (440 yards) of a vessel and when the vessel and whales are within quarter-mile (440 yards) from shore.

— ORCA ZONE around Lime Kiln Point for motorized vessels year-round. This would create a no-go zone (human-powered craft exempt) from shore out to half-mile offshore, running south from Lime Kiln Bay to Deadman Bay on the west side of San Juan Island. This area would be a kayak and human-powered craft-only zone, all other restrictions applying. No exemptions for recreational or commercial fishing.

3. The Whale Museum supports NOAA’s proposal that vessels keep clear of the whales’ path within 400 yards of the whales.

4. Special consideration should be given for human-powered craft. Maintaining distance restrictions as well as remaining out of the whales’ path can be extremely challenging for human powered craft. Well-defined best practice guidelines can serve to address safety issues and the potential threats that human-powered craft have on these endangered orcas. (See Kayak Education and Leadership Program, KELP, at www.whalemuseum.org/images/misc/KELP_Code_Poster.gif)

These points are the central components of our recommendations sent to NOAA. To review our letter to NOAA, please go to www.whalemuseum.org where you will find a link to our comment letter which was developed by the staff and board of The Whale Museum. We all have until Jan. 15, 2010 to send comments to NOAA on its proposal to regulate boater behavior around our orcas. Comments may be submitted by e_mail to orca.plan@noaa.gov.

Let’s start the New Year off right by coming together to give orcas the right-of-way and to advance the recovery of the Southern Residents.

— Val Veirs, PhD, is president of The Whale Museum Board of Directors. Jenny L. Atkinson is executive director of The Whale Museum.

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