The Whale Museum News & Events
Updated: May 16, 2007
San Juan County targets boaters harassing orcas
Spurred by tales of reckless, negligent and belligerent boaters who endanger themselves and orcas in their zeal to see the killer whales up close, the San Juan County Council took steps Tuesday to rein in the errant orca spotters.
On a 6-0 vote, the council ordered Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord to draft an ordinance that would be enforced primarily by officers of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. A small minority of private boaters -- not commercial whale-watch operators -- are the target.
"All this time we've really been without any horsepower as far as enforcement unless we can show harassment of the orcas," said Russ Mullins, a sergeant with Fish and Wildlife, "and that's extremely difficult when you can't talk to the whale and say, 'Do you feel harassed?' "
The county's action comes as federal officials, having declared the animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, are thinking about passing their own regulations governing boaters around orcas. But that, in all likelihood, would take at least a year -- not in time for this summer's whale-watching season.
"Timing is obviously critical," said Amy Trainer, staff lawyer at Friends of the San Juans and a major force behind Tuesday's move. "Today was a very good, big, positive first step."
But Gaylord urged caution. He cited a Hawaii case in which a judge ruled that the Marine Mammal Protection Act specifically reserves to the federal government the authority to set rules governing conduct around marine mammals.
On the other hand, the Endangered Species Act, which Congress enacted after the marine mammal law, says local governments can adopt laws to protect imperiled species as long as they are stricter than federal regulations.
Also, the Hawaii case involved parasailers near humpback whales, which have federal protection against boaters and others passing too close.
Officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service announced their intention last month to pass regulations governing boaters who get near whales.
"We are supportive of San Juan County doing something, because it's consistent with the recovery plan," said Melanie Rowland, a senior lawyer in the agency's Seattle office. "It would help if there were some (ordinance) in place so we can see how it's working."
The voluntary "Be Whale-Wise" guidelines on which the San Juan County ordinance is likely to be based are drawn up by the Soundwatch program at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. They are tweaked annually, but the basics are simple, said Soundwatch Director Kari Koski:
"Slow down and move out of the way of the whales. You want to move until you're 100 yards away and get out of the way of the whales."
Careless boaters are warned frequently by Soundwatch, commercial whale-watch operators or state Fish and Wildlife agents, and most quickly correct their behavior, ordinance supporters say.
But they cited an incident last August in which fishermen passing through the San Juans repeatedly brought their boat close to whales and stopped in their path. Despite continued warnings, they kept violating the guidelines. Even though their behavior was videotaped and witnessed by many nearby boaters, including law enforcement officers, the boaters have not been prosecuted.
Commercial whale-watch operators support the new ordinance.
"What this stems from is behavior by private boaters that was belligerent and unacceptable to all of us because they are basically thumbing their nose at the Endangered Species Act," said Bill Wright, owner of San Juan Safaris, who is active in the Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest.
©1996-2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.