How Are We Likely to be Impacted by the Proposed Killer Whale Vessel Regulations?

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We are being asked to give the local population of orcas a lot more room – room to forage for fish, to swim and interact with each other, to be free of our close proximity –the equivalent of two football fields length (200 yards) of room – and it is hard to imagine. We are accustomed to being able to see the whales at a much closer distance, and at times to see them swim around and under our boats – so these proposed regulations seem like a big change.

Yet, almost anywhere else where we go to view nature in the wild we expect to have to maintain our distance. Through experience, we know that most wild animals will not allow us to get too close to them. Moreover, the times when they do allow us to get close, most likely the animals are keeping a careful eye on us – and so we are no longer observing their natural behavior and learning what it is that makes them fit so uniquely in the world.

We offer protection for wildlife – we set aside tracts of land, and where necessary we build bridges, tunnels, or fish ladders to help animals navigate the structures that impede their ability to survive. And we compensate for the difficulties of wildlife viewing – we tryPicture to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible while enhancing our ability to see them through the use of powerful binoculars and spotting scopes.

And although we may feel inconvenienced by having to set aside a seasonal refuge for the orcas and by the increased viewing distance, they do deserve the protection that we grant to other species.

A positive aspect to this is that our whale watching adventures can be enhanced because we will more fully appreciate how the whales behave when not surrounded by our boats. In addition, the creation of a seasonal refuge will impact other species – we may find that marine mammals (such as Harbor porpoises) and seabirds will also use the area more fully, and our whale watching trips will be further enriched.

On the downside, I feel that the proposed regulations have been painted with too broad a brush and hopefully some adjustments can be made before being adopted. Although I understand the logic behind the decisions to apply the rules equally to power boats and kayaks, for example, I think this penalizes those people who wish to find alternatives, and discourages innovation. The blanket rules provide no incentives for responsible viewing nor do they provide a way to enforce the regulations that I was able to see. And I am perplexed by the fact that the refuge as planned does not include the preferred rest areas of the orcas, as defined by NMFS in their documents.

This chart illustrates which vessels approach too closely to the whales (NOAA)

With neither carrots (incentives for responsibility) nor sticks (enforcement), we could very well wind up with a situation in which the only people approaching the whales are those in private boats with loud engines – a group that is already acknowledged to be the worst offenders, and these things will have to be addressed.

Please do contact NMFS with your thoughts and concerns, and plan to attend the public meetings if possible.

The government is considering enacting the following regulations in order to enhance the recovery of our locally endangered population of orcas (please see previous posts for details):

Most boats will be required to stay 200 yards away from of any killer whales in the inland waters of Washington.

A restricted zone along the west coast of San Juan Island extending a half a mile out will be established in which most boats will be prohibited from entering between May 1st and September 30th, starting in 2010.

Intercepting the path of any killer whale in inland waters of Washington will be prohibited.

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