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San Juan County voter initiative looks to restrict whale-watching

A new initiative would increase whale-watching distances to 650 yards. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

A new voter initiative was filed with the San Juan County Auditor Monday to increase the distance whale-watching boats can view endangered southern-resident orcas.

Whale watchers could be key to saving Southern Resident orcas

The petition gathered 2,625 signatures, enough to qualify for the November ballot. The measure, however, faces a legal challenge from whale-watching companies.

The proposed ordinance would require certain boats stay 650 yards away from the whales when they’re in San Juan County waters. That’s stricter than Washington’s newly passed law that prohibits vessels from getting within 300 yards of orcas. The county initiative includes exemptions for research vessels, law enforcement, and tribal fisherman who have treaty rights.

“What it applies to is commercial whale watching vessels, recreational vessels of all types, both power boats and non-motorized,” said Lopez Island resident Sorrel North, who filed the ordinance.

Scientists say boat noise and vessel disturbance are some of the main threats to the southern resident orcas’ survival. Another factor is a lack of Chinook salmon, which the whales eat almost exclusively.

“They have to be able to hunt and forage successfully in their core critical habitat,” said North. “The idea here of keeping the boats back is giving them room to be able to echo-locate … so that they can successfully hunt for them.”

Whale watching moratorium called vital part of recovery

The Pacific Whale Watch Association has filed a lawsuit, seeking to block the measure from going forward. It argues a local ordinance cannot preempt state law.

“This is just causing division in this community instead of working together,” said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, public relations manager for PWWA. “We’re really disappointed that there continues to be a perception that the whale watching community … is in any way out there to harm animals.”

The whale-watch companies argue they’re needed to act as good role models on the water and warn other vessels about the presence of orcas.

The San Juan County ordinance was filed three days after the southern resident killer whales were spotted near San Juan Island. It was the first time in more than two months the whales were seen in their home waters.

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