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County enacts Killer Whale protection law

On Sept. 11, 2007, the San Juan County Council enacted a landmark ordinance designed to prevent boaters from harassing the endangered southern resident killer whales that frequent its waters. The ordinance makes it unlawful to feed killer whales or “knowingly” approach within 100 yards of a killer whale within San Juan County.

Recent declines in the whale population in the area have been blamed on declining salmon runs and pollution, as well as stress from noise and close contacts with boaters. The whales have been classified as “endangered” under the Federal Endangered Species Act, but rules for protecting the whales are not expected to emerge from National Marine Fisheries Service for at least another year.

“This is an interim measure,” Council Member Howie Rosenfeld said, “it won’t be necessary after the federal regulations are completed.”

“These animals need protection now,” said Council Member Kevin Ranker, who – along with Rosenfeld – has pushed hard for the ordinance. “We need to look out for them so these magnificent animals will be with us in the future.”

During a public hearing prior to the Council’s vote, several speakers expressed concern that, because the whales are fast-moving and unpredictable, many boaters could find themselves accidentally in violation of the law.

Council Members emphasized that enforcement officers will need to exercise discretion, but Councilman Rosenfeld added, “Enforcement people will be there to protect the whales from flagrant violators and we haven’t had a tool to do that.”

During the summer and fall months, three pods of killer whales are commonly found in the waters of San Juan County and whale watching has become a $10 million industry. But most of the complaints about interference with the whales concern small pleasure craft rather than commercial operators. Bill Wright, representing the Northwest Whale Watch Association, enthusiastically endorsed the ordinance and noted that much of its substance was patterned after his association’s voluntary “Be Whale Wise” code of conduct.

The environmental group, Friends of the San Juans, has also championed this ordinance. “[The whales] are being stressed by a shortage of food and a toxic environment,” said Amy Trainer, the group’s attorney, “hopefully this ordinance will make their lives a little bit better.”

San Juan County Sheriff Bill Cumming supported the ordinance but also expressed concern about having enough resources to adequately enforce it. Council Member Ranker suggested that the Council consider an additional $16,500 monthly appropriation for the ordinance’s enforcement during the summer tourist season.

Earlier, in testimony at the hearing, Sgt. Russ Mullins of the Washington Fish and Wildlife told Council Members that his office was prepared to cooperate with the Sheriff to use the ordinance to protect the whales. “It’s why we go to work in the morning,” he said.

The Council signed the ordinance immediately so that it will be in effect prior to the popular Roche Harbor Salmon Derby, which begins September 27th and often brings large numbers of fishing boats and the orca whales into conflict.

Council Members Alan Lichter, Gene Knapp, Kevin Ranker and Howie Rosenfeld voted in favor of the ordinance. Members Bob Myhr and Rich Peterson were traveling and not able to attend the meeting.

The ordinance as adopted is posted at: http://www.co.san-juan.wa.us/News/vesselwhaleord_final.pdf

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