Whale-watch regulations delayed for more discussion

The comment period for proposed federal regulations to restrict the operation of boats around killer whales has been extended to Jan. 15, pushing back the implementation date.

It looks like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is throwing open the door for “cooperative efforts” that might even include some new on-the-water research this coming year.

“We recognize that by extending the public comment period, we won’t have enough time to issue a final rule before the 2010 summer boating season,” states an e-mail sent out this morning by NOAA.

The statement adds:

“We continue to believe that it’s important to address the adverse effects of vessel traffic on killer whales in the near future. In light of the requests we’ve received for an extension of the comment period, however, we believe additional public outreach will enhance both NOAA Fisheries’ understanding of public concerns and the public’s understanding of the basis for our proposal. This will also allow time for cooperative efforts to refine the proposal. We’ll work toward adoption of a final rule before the 2011 summer boating season.”

The proposed rules would create an enforceable 200-yard protective zone around the whales. That’s twice as far as existing federal guidelines call for. See my July 28 story in the Kitsap Sun.

During three recent hearings, many people raised questions, concerns and objections to the proposed rule. Some even offered suggestions.

Donna Darm of NOAA told me that the extra time would allow biologists to explore and discuss some of the ideas, including issues related to recreational fishing and kayaking within a “no-go zone” off the west side of San Juan Island.

Research is ongoing, she said, and another year of data would not hurt. New on-the-water studies may or may not be proposed. When I raised the idea of an experiment using the entire whale-watch fleet to test various scenarios, she seemed intrigued by the notion.

“We have lots of comments to think about related to this alternative or that alternative,” she said.

NOAA officials were surprised by the number of people who showed up at the three public hearings: 180 or so each in Anacortes and Seattle, followed by about 260 in Friday Harbor, according to NOAA spokeswoman Janet Sears. That compares to between 40 and 60 people at planning meetings before the regulations were announced.

Shane Aggergaard, president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said he is pleased to see the willingness of NOAA officials to discuss the issue further. At first, NOAA officials did not seem to be listening, he told me.

“In the first part if it, it seemed like, ‘this is the proposal and this is the way it’s going to be,’” he said. “The fact that they’re looking at our recommendations or anything outside their original proposal is a positive step.”

The outpouring of opposition, including comments collected from passengers of whale-watch boats, has been huge, he said. “I would be surprised if there are not 20,000 comments that they will have to deal with.”

To comply with a strict 200-yard limit, whale-watch boats would need to stay close to 300 yards away most of the time, he said, and that is something that could kill much of the whale-watching business, he said.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association has proposed a combination of two ideas advanced by NOAA. The PWWA option would prohibit vessels within 100 yards under most conditions, though it would allow fishing boats to hold their position and kayakers to let orcas swim by. Other vessels would need to stay out of the path of the Southern Residents and observe a 7-knot speed along San Juan Island from Eagle Point to Mitchell Point out one-half mile.

Some folks have let me know that they are alarmed that strict regulations will not be approved in time to better protect the whales this year. (Washington state law includes a 100-yard restriction.)

Peter Hamilton of the whale-protection group Lifeforce sent this message:

It’s really unfortunate that the orcas will not get more protection in 2010 under improved vessel regulations. But of course enforcement would still be an issue. In order to provide more protection, Lifeforce hopes that NOAA and WDFW (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) will get more funds to step up enforcement in 2010.

Whale watch companies do not comply with WA legislation when they are not being monitored by government agencies. This has been proven in our report, “Contact: In Pursuit of Orcas.” Lifeforce photos have led to fines against a company.

Lifeforce urges all to email US Commerce Gary Locke to increase orca protection by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (Email TheSec@doc.gov).

During public comment meetings the whale watch companies and their commercial/sport fishing buddies were somewhat rude and had a bias letter writing campaign. At least one company owner was a commercial fisher and others have connections with commercial fishing activities. The form letter targeted their whale watch tourists who were misled into thinking that the whale watch companies would go out of business if the vessel regulations are implemented.

It is clear that these industries are making their financial profits a priority over orca protection… Whale Watching operations must be changed. Companies have been able to do basically want they want over the years. This must be stopped by changing their operation methods and more enforcement. Lifeforce will be submitting additional comments by the new deadline.

Lifeforce recommendation will include:

1. A 400 yards safety zone around orcas to reduce noise levels, stress and collisions. Companies had agreed to 400 yards when orcas are nursing.
2. No Go Zone on the west side of San Juan Island and southwest side of Point Roberts. These are vital critical habits.
3. Designated Go Zones to stop the relentless, day long pursuit of orcas.
4. A 30 minute time limit to view orcas (presently boats can stay for hours).

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