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Whale watching companies file lawsuit over distance restriction

Washington’s whale watching companies are going to court in San Juan County to fight a local citizen initiative. The measure would effectively ban them from viewing the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association argues the local ordinance cannot supersede state law, which already set limits on viewing the whales.

The PWWA views itself as a critical part of recovering the endangered whales. The association says it’s key in providing public education about the orca’s plight. The whale watching boats are often the first ones to spot the whales, and relay sighting information to other vessels, including ferries and private boats. They work to ensure nearby watercraft keep a safe and legal distance. Whale watchers say they also go slow, setting a good example for other boats.

San Juan County voter initiative looks to restrict whale-watching

“With us being around, they already know that something is in the area and they can adjust their speed,” said Carl Williams, a captain with the Anacortes-based Island Adventures. “That is the benefit that should never end especially now with the new laws that have been created.”

Williams is referring to the state’s newly created laws aimed at protecting the Southern Resident Killer Whales from extinction. With only 76 left, researchers say the orca’s biggest threats include vessel disturbance and a lack of Chinook salmon, the whale’s primary food.

That’s one reason the state created a protective oval around the southern residents, requiring boats to stay 400 yards away when following the whales, and 300 yards away when viewing them from other directions.

“I feel it’s disingenuous for people to claim a 300 yard setback is adequate,” said Sorrel North, a longtime Lopez Island resident. She wants the whale watching boats to back off even more to give the orcas a better chance to hunt for the scarce fish.

“It just doesn’t make sense to follow and surround a starving species for 12 hours a day during the height of feeding season in their critical habitat,” said North.

North filed a citizen initiative this month that would require certain vessels to stay 650 yards away when they’re in San Juan County waters. That’s what Orca Task Force members recommended before the Legislature settled on the 300-yard limit.

“Our initiative is really about one thing alone,” North described. “To follow the recommendations of experts and to give this starving, critically endangered species a protective bubble within which they might forage and hunt, communicate and socialize without constant vessel disturbance.”

The citizen ordinance includes exemptions for research vessels, law enforcement, and tribal fisherman who have treaty rights. The PWWA has sued to get North’s measure off the ballot. The association will make its case in court later this month.

Whale watchers could be key to saving Southern Resident orcas

“They don’t recognize the value of all the years that the Pacific Whale Watch Association members have been doing to maintain and provide the best practices for these animals,” said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, PWWA spokesman.

He pointed to other factors affecting the whales, including pollution and the shrinking numbers of Chinook salmon. He also argued the PWAA boats are relatively quiet compared to the noise generated by big shipping containers and controversial Navy training missions.

“At low speed and at distances, it’s almost a non-issue in terms of the impact on the southern residents,” said Balcomb-Bartok. “The science has said, and it’s kind of true if you think about it, that it’s nothing more than the sound of rainfall.”

Balcomb-Bartok was citing a study by Marla Holt, research wildlife biologist with NOAA Fisheries in Seattle. Scientists attached special microphones to the orcas, and found they raise their voices while in the presence of many vessels.

“Anything that raises background noise levels is going to make it more challenging for the whales to use sound in their everyday lives,” said Holt. But her research also found distance was not the biggest factor. Instead, it was the number of nearby boats and how fast they were going that made the whales speak up.

Sorrel North argued it’s time to err on the side of caution. With the whales already struggling to find food, she said eliminating whale watch boat noise can only help.

“They could let their passengers know that the southern residents are starving to death,” said North. “So, they’re going to leave those whales alone so they can hunt and forage in peace.”

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