The Laws Protecting Orcas From Boats Are Serious, And So Are The Penalties

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Viewing must now be from 200 yards away. (Photo taken in 2009 under permit).

The weather this weekend promises to be great for boating in and around the San Juan Islands, but whether you are paddling about in a kayak or motoring in a luxury yacht, be sure to give a wide berth to the orcas if they are around – or face the possibility of monumental fines, and even jail time.
Newly enacted Federal law protects the whales from the noise and interference of boats within 200 yards, state regulations and county ordinances kick in at 100 yards.
All three levels of government are cooperating  in enforcement, so if you are in violation you face fees at all levels no matter who issues the citations.
San Juan County: In an ordinance passed in 2008, San Juan County was the first legal body to establish any guidelines to protect the whales from boaters. Fine:  $750.00
Washington State: Later in 2008, Washington state passed regulations that further defined safe viewing distances.  Fine:  Up to $500.00
U.S. Government: As of May 16, 2011 the federal government passed even more stringent regulations, based on the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.  Fines: $25,000 (civil),  $50,000 and/or one year in prison (criminal)

In November 2005, the Southern Resident population was listed as endangered under the ESA and, thus, as depleted under the MMPA. NMFS designated critical habitat in November 2006 for the Southern Resident population.In July 2009, NMFS’ Northwest Region proposed vessel regulations to protect the Southern Resident population; the final rule on vessel regulations in Washington state [pdf] (76 FR 20870) published in the Federal Register in April 2011.

Stiff fines are possible.

No bones about it, these laws will be enforced.  San Juan County – which knowing the level of harassment by private boaters first hand had acted on its own while the wheels of the state and federal governments were still spinning – sent this message: “The San Juan County Sheriff will be patrolling the areas off San Juan Island over the summer and is available to assist national Fisheries in enforcing the restricted zones”.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will patrol the area, and Coast Guard vessels will intercede if needed as well.
If these measures seem a bit drastic and desperate…they are, and for good reason.  This unique population of orcas is precariously close to extinction due to lack of food and contaminants, and the authorities are trying to reduce the stress to the whales that they believe is caused by proximity to boats. It is a tiny band-aid on a huge problem, and is largely insignificant when compared to the primary problem for the whales:  they need more salmon.
The irony in all this?  The Pacific Whale Watch Association of commercial boat operators has been addressing the issue since 1994, a full 14 years before the government did anything, and they are the most impacted by these regulations. I observed them from shore all last season as they self regulated a distance 50% farther away from the whales than was required.  And all of us watched private boaters go right to, and over, the whales with no consequences – if these new laws are not fairly applied and are shown to be ineffective they should be rescinded.
But no matter what, the time spent monkeying around with viewing distance should have been dedicated to restoring salmon – starving to death in a quiet world is still starving to death.
Chinook salmon comprise the majority of the Southern Resident orcas' diet.

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