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Whale watching companies score major victory in Skagit County court

Whale watchers in the San Juans. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Washington’s whale watching companies are celebrating a legal victory, after a Skagit County judge threw out a citizen initiative in San Juan County.

Whale watching companies file lawsuit over distance restriction

The ballot measure would have established a 650-yard buffer zone around the endangered southern resident orcas. Supporters called it a necessity in helping Puget Sound orcas hunt for food. Others argued that whale watching boats actually do a good deal to help the struggling population.

“I would hope that everyone that was in favor of (the buffer zone) understands that this is not a loss — this is still a win for the whales and there’s a lot going out here that’s going to improve the situation for the southern resident [killer whales],” said Pacific Whale Watch Association spokesperson Kelley Balcom-Bartok.

The Skagit County judge ruled that the local ballot measure ultimately would have conflicted with state and federal authority.

Initiative supporters had originally gathered enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, calling the presence of boats near the southern residents “a shameful spectacle.”

The PWWA, though, dubbed the push for a buffer zone a waste of resources.

“This was an effort to preempt state and federal (regulations). And so it really was time and money wasted in my opinion,” said Balcom-Bartok.

Whale watchers could be key to saving Southern Resident orcas

Meanwhile, conservation groups mobilized on a federal level Monday, suing the Trump administration for failing to recognize a petition to create “no-go” zone for boats in areas where southern resident orcas hunt.

Officially, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association supports a voluntary no-go zone, rather than mandating boats stay out of a specific area.

Canada previously opted for far more stringent measures, restricting all boat traffic between June and October 2019 in what it defines as “interim sanctuary zones” for orcas.

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