Updated: June 19, 2007
Turning guidelines into law is an orca of a problem
The killer whales aren't waiting for the bureaucrats to draft new regulations.
For a few weeks yet, as more of the transient whales arrive to join their full-time resident cousins, the orcas' welfare will depend to a large extent on the Pacific Northwest's summer armada of floating humanity doing the right thing this whale-watching season.
The San Juan County Council, recognizing that new federal rules are at least a year away, earlier ordered Prosecutor Randy Gaylord to draft an ordinance to protect orcas. Gaylord said the ordinance, crafted to mirror many of the guidelines widely practiced by whale watchers, likely would go into effect after the Fourth of July.
"We're now assessing the practical issues of enforcement," he said.
These include cost, he said, along with the complications of regulating foreign-flag vessels.
Canadian whale watchers "are a big part of the fleet," Gaylord said.
The new regulations are to be enforced mainly by state Department of Fish and Wildlife officers. Most say the focus is likely to be on those few renegade private boaters who flout the guidelines rather than commercial whale-watch operators.
"Generally, people out there are following the guidelines," said Sgt. Russ Mullins, head of enforcement in North Puget Sound for Fish and Wildlife.
Chief among the guidelines: Stay 100 yards away from the side, 400 yards from the front and back of the traveling pod and don't block the orcas' path.
The push for new regulations in San Juan County is prompted by the vague language of federal law. The case of Corey Mendoza is a perfect example.
Mendoza, a 51-year-old Stanwood resident, last year was charged with a gross misdemeanor for violating state wildlife laws after he drove his boat at high speed toward orcas, chasing them and repeatedly blocking their escape. The case ended recently with Mendoza forfeiting bail, a $450 fine.
"Law enforcement now has to make the subjective call that someone has harassed the whales, and then prosecutors have to prove it in court," said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor.
"That can be difficult to prove," agreed Mullins.
Officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service, which in 2005 designated the Puget Sound's southern resident orca population as endangered, have also proposed new, stricter regulations governing traffic around the whales. The first public comment period on the proposed federal regulations ends Wednesday.
"There won't be any changes at the federal level this year," said Lynne Barre, a marine mammal specialist for the fisheries service. "We support the guidelines and plan to do billboards, bus ads and, later, maybe radio ads to raise public awareness."
Guidelines for whale watching are promoted by the Soundwatch program of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.
Kari Koski, director of Soundwatch, said her organization has been working with San Juan County and state officials.
"It's difficult to translate the language of the guidelines -- such as 'be cautious' -- into regulations," Koski said.
Capt. Marc Bissonnette, chief of marine operations for the Victoria Clipper, said commercial whale watching operators are getting better at policing each other's behavior.
Still, Bissonnette said, "We're dealing with wild animals and they are not always predictable."
Two years ago, Bissonnette said his operation was cited maybe 10 times for violating the guidelines.
"Last year, we had only one violation," he said.
Most of the problem today, he said, comes from private boaters who either don't know how to behave or don't care.
"We get on the radio with them sometimes to let them know what's what," Bissonnette said. "Most people are pretty good about it."
San Juan County's Gaylord said his office will soon be able to ensure a safe "moving zone" around the whales with a law that "finally has some teeth in it."
For more information about the "Be Whale Wise" guidelines, see the Soundwatch program at whalemuseum.org
For more information about the new federal rules, see the marine mammal section at www.nwr.noaa.gov
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P-I reporter Tom Paulson can be reached at 206-448-8318 or firstname.lastname@example.org.