Carefully crafted regulations can help preserve and increase our whale population
September 29, 2009 · 4:54 PM
It is our impression that most San Juan Island residents (including the owners of commercial whale-watch boats and commercial kayak companies) were jubilant when our Southern Resident killer whales were listed as endangered under the ESA on Nov. 18, 2005. San Juan Island finally had the federal government’s support to help ensure the survival and well-being of this precious resource.
It should be no surprise, then, that, after almost four years, the federal government has proposed new regulations to protect the orcas.
Are the proposed regulations rational and reasonable, and, if implemented, will they protect killer whales from vessel interference and vessel noise? After studying the proposed NOAA regulations relating to both vessel approach restrictions and the no-go zone on the west side of San Juan Island, we conclude that:
1. There should be enforceable new regulations to protect the resident whales. We suggest that "intent" be eliminated as a component of any new regulation. If a violation of a regulation occurs, there should be no need to prove the intent of the boater. If he is where he should not be, he should be penalized — perhaps $500 for a first offense.
2. An expanded and clearly defined no-go zone is a rational, reasonable and easily enforceable proposal. The boundary (length and width) of a no-go zone is a subject up for debate. We believe that a width of half-mile is reasonable.
3. All motorized vessels (commercial and private, including sailboats) should be prohibited in the no-go zone.
As west-side residents on San Juan Island, we have observed that the worst offenders of whale harassment are the increasing numbers of private boaters (including sailboaters) who purposefully chase the whales and/or who stop in the path of oncoming whales. These people don’t care about voluntary regulations and they can easily avoid prosecution because of the lack of enforcement resources and because of the current burdens of proof of a violation.
The majority of commercial whale-watch vessels (with the exception of some of the Canadian boats which “zoom” in when whales are present) comply with the current regulations. However, we now realize that, in order not to interfere with the whales’ echolocation, foraging and communication, all motorized vessels should be farther away from the whales than required under existing regulations. With respect to any new regulations, the “distance” needs to be scientifically grounded. Our suggestion is that no motorized vessel be permitted within 200 yards of the whales.
4. Kayakers, both private and commercial, and adjacent landowners should be allowed in the no-go zone (even though we have seen the numbers of kayakers increase substantially in recent years), unless NOAA can scientifically demonstrate that they, too, pose a specific and significant threat.
We recognize that whale-watching (both from shore and water) is vital to maintaining a viable economy on the island. That being said, we feel strongly that our orcas need better protection than we are currently providing. Carefully crafted new regulations can help preserve and, hopefully, increase our whale population, so that whale watching will continue to attract tourists.
David and Karen Kratter
San Juan Island