Monday, October 26, 2009

A Trip Through Time: Port McNeill to Friday Harbor DAYS 1-3

Last month we joined Captain Ronn Patterson of Dolphin Charters and Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society for a picturesque cruise from Port McNeill to Friday Harbor through the protected waters of Vancouver Island's inside passage and beyond. Living on a small boat for 8 days with 6 other passengers, we were treated to our first glimpses of the beauty of the world that lays just beyond the San Juan Islands. This is a region with both history and a natural magnificence that is’s an adventure that takes you through thickly forested mountains that rise up from the sea and whose walls are almost perpendicular to the surface of the water, through inlets of historical significance and opportunities for wildlife viewing that can leave you awestruck. I kept some notes and wanted to share the adventure in photos---so here we go!


Our journey begins in Friday Harbor, where we awoke to a beautiful sunrise offering a surreal pink light cloaked in fog- a fog which shrouded most of the Islands with the exception of the northernmost tip of San Juan. Our departure from Roche Harbor was uneventful, flying about 1/2 hour to Nanaimo, Vancouver Island's second largest city which sits centrally on its coastline. After a brief stop at this town which boasts residences scrolling up the hillsides and evolving across the hills greeting the lapping waters of the Straits of Georgia, we departed for Pt. McNeill. As our travels continued north, the blue green seas met the rolling hills of deforested islands, interrupted with occasional pens of salmon farms dotting the inlets. I was finally witnessing first hand the salmon farming industry's impact on the region which Alexandra Morton has spent tireless years trying to erase from this landscape. Tucked in between the islands which have not escaped the logging industry by any stretch of the imagination, the pens reminded me that our society's footprint travels into the what most consider pristine environments throughout the world.

Three hours after our original departure, we were greeted by Port McNeill, a small village on the shores of the Queen Charlotte Strait, situated on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. We were embraced by rain (and lots of it!), fog and a beatitful harbor nestled in the landscape.

Port McNeill provided us with some great hiking opportunities as we took to the trails in search of bears and wildlife. Lots of scat, no bears to be seen- although we were alert to the cougar population (once warned by locals). We toured the harbor access road watching the loons rest on the water's edge, visiting the Logging Museum for an overview of the area's logging history and made our way through the little shopping village on the waterfront.


The second day of our trip would convince us that our all-weather gear had been a good investment- the day began and ended with 30 knot winds and uninterrupted rains. We spent the early part of the morning hiking on a trail nestled in the southernmost side of Port McNeill, bear scat teasing us every 50 feet or so. At the end of the trail's intersect at Miner Road we headed left towards the rocky shoreline and proceeded along the beach headed back into town. Tide was rapidly changing- the exchange was amazingly fast- within 15 minutes of our venture's end, the pebbled shoreline path was no longer visible, the beach now hidden by the ocean's waves. And for the record, we were dry! On to Port Hardy.

The trip on a local bus to Port Hardy lasted about 35 minutes along Highway 19, a richly forested road heading north. The town boasts itself as "the last bastion of civilization on the north side of Vancouver Island," and true to the promise we were greeted by a bustling harbor with all the amenities- a mall, a main street, restaurants, coffee houses, bookstores and a proximity to ocean adventure on both land and sea. This sizable community is slowly moving away from the resource-based economies of fishing, forestry, and mining and the town is gradually developing an economy based on tourism. We spent the afternoon touring the town in the wind and rain- our final interaction with "civilization" for days to come.


We awoke to something we had yet to experience in our brief travels- clear skies. The rain stopped for a brief interval, just long enough to capture a beautiful sunrise along the pebbled shoreline. As you can see, fog would again eclipse the day which would take us across the Queen Charlotte Strait in just a few hours.

The water was abosolutely calm, not a ripple on the shorelines. We met the Delphinus at the harbor, boarded and headed east to Malcolm Island, destination: Sointula and a meet and greet with Alexandra Morton, Rob Williams and Erin Ashe.

Billing itself today as a "Taste of Utopia," Sointula has a rich history that began at the turn of the 20th century when a group of Finnish immigrants founded the area, beginning an experiment in cooperative living. According to history, Finnish immigrants who had long been oppressed in the Island's mining industry founded the town, naming their newfound respite "Sointula," meaning "a place of harmony." The town was designed around communal living and equality, everyone participating equally. Eventually the idealism waned and the group sold its assets to the bank. However, remaining settlers would later purchase the land and return to a fishing and logging lifestyle. Today, Sointula still attracts individualists who remain true to the original dreams.

Did I mention we had the chance to meet some of the most prolific and truly passionate people in the region? I was beside myself as Alex Morton boarded the boat- Listening to Whales was a book I read at least 5 times on our wait to finally move to the islands. The title drew me in and I found her words to be a gift- I was and still am enchanted with her creativity and stewardship and have followed her Salmon Farming mission since my arrival here. What can I say? Some people you admire, some you show respect for what they stand for and Alex, to me, is both. Rob and Erin carry on the same torch of integrity and honest regard.

We spent several hours with the group discussing Alex's most recent efforts to impact the Salmon farming industry's impact on the region and Rob and Erin's work in wildlife distribution and abundance as well as impacts of human activities on behavior and energetics of marine mammals. May sound pretty geeky to some but I was in heaven. The talk also laid a good foundation towards understanding the tenuous nature of regional sustainability for the other passengers, not all from the area.

And then we were off to Echo Bay, traveling down the Johnstone Strait to Billy Proctor's dock house by the sea, just down the island and around a cove. On our way, we passed a band of traveling sea lions, foraging and swimming alongside the boat, glancing back at us now and again to ensure our whereabouts.

Echo Bay can only be accessed by private boats. This is a world not visited by ferries, trips for supplies must be planned and expect to last all day. It is here we met Billy Proctor, who runs a small museum of beachcombing finds, has written a few books, and has lived in this area for a very long time, watching the landscape and scenery change. Billy has carved out a life of adventure on this coast as a former logger, fisherman, and do-it-himselfer and he's on the list as one of the seven wonders (people) of Canada. If you're ever in the region, stop by if you can- it will be worth the trip.

Our first day on the water was over as we moored at Billy's pier and prepared for our fist night at sea. The cove was protected and the rain was beginning to fall as a light misty fog rolled in. Next Stop: Bears and Berries in Knight Inlet. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Let Your Voices Be Heard- Comment Period Ending On NOAA Proposed Vessel Impact Regulations


In an earlier blog, I tried to cover the basic history and background of the proposed vessel impact regulations currently open to public comment period. It is important to understand the history and impacts when expressing our concerns and/or providing comments to NOAA. To review the Recovery Plan and a synopsis of the proposal in the prior blog, please visit:

"We need to wake people up to how we have mismanaged our natural heritage, how we have denied the relationship between ourselves and the natural world ...and believe(d) our job is to exploit, manipulate, simplify or manufacture nature to satisfy our short term goals." Howard Garrett



The first time I ever encountered an orca whale was at The Vancouver Aquarium back in 1991. I did not know about the groundbreaking studies by John Ford nor did I know about the hydrophones which would soon be placed in Robson Bight (1998) and off the shores of San Juan Island, WA (2000) to capture the whales songs for the very first time. It was simply love at first sight as I dragged myself home to the East Coast.

I was not here to learn about the decline of the Southern Resident orcas - I did not follow their story. Living on the east coast, I did not read the Seattle PI's August 21, 2000 article wherein David Bain and Rich Osborne would stress concern about their decline, suspecting links to fewer salmon, toxic water and boat noise potentially interfering with the whales' communication and feeding habits. I did not know that there was a growing concern being expressed that the number of boats on the water could have long term impacts on the whales.

It is now 2009, and I live on the west side of San Juan Island, far removed from Maryland and in the heart of the whales summer playground. In the timeframe since 1991, they have been listed as an endangered species and scientists continue studies on the relationship to their decline with the same impacts suggested back in 2000. I have embraced this beloved icon along with all of the others who have traveled to this region --- the scientists who come to provide insight into sustainability, outdoor enthusiasts and visitors----and admit to my personal footprint being in a cumulative way, part of the problem as well.

Once the orcas made the "A" list as an endangered species, NOAA was tasked with developing protocols to address the critical elements impacting their survival. CLICK here for an overview. One element (of three- see the overview link for more details) is vessel noise, which has already been established as a potential contributing factor to their survival. I am not a scientist nor am I an expert on orca whales. I do know that the proposed vessel regulations have merit and are backed by the best available science- the obligation afforded by the ESA listing. I've followed the Public Hearings on the Proposed Vessel Regulations, attending the last in Friday Harbor on October 5th---and walked away disheartened by the special interests and monetary interests exhibited by the majority of the attendees.

As a resident on the west side of the island I get to see first hand how education and enforcement are not adequate- my observations correlate with the data being kept by Soundwatch- data that suggests that in 2006 ALONE there were 1,281 documented incidents during working hours wherein boats were not adhering to guidelines. I have watched the vessels (referred to by the Whale Watch operators themselves as a "flotilla") literally swarm the whales for hours a day - private boats, whale watching industry vessels, and fishing boats- all hoping to either catch a glimpse of the orcas or benefit from their presence. There have been times where we have counted 24 whales and 97 boats at the height of the summer- some following guidelines, others in the path, many inshore of the whales, some leapfrogging, others motoring along side the whales in an attempt to "get a good photo." The voices from the microphones echo up the hillside- telling visitors about the whales and pointing out behaviors as they occur- a spyhop, a tail lob, oh look, a breach! And all the while, Soundwatch and Straitwatch attempt to keep the whales out of harms way- zigzagging north and south warning boats and educating on the Be Whale Wise Guidelines. Engines roar above water, fishing boats speed through the whales following tide fishery and chasing the salmon themselves. As the day wears on and "enforcement" and "education" boats head home, the remaining vessels crowd in closely to the whales well through the sunset hours, each taking their moment to be free of laws and rationale- closing the day with brilliantly close interactions which we watch helplessly from shore every single night that the whales are here. I had to stop focusing on the violators- it was causing me too much stress in my environment- I became hoarse from yelling at the boats to at least cut their engines and the like. I now try to watch with a different perspective, waiting for the day the regulations are ENFORCED and reporting the most egregious violations directly to NOAA. And it is not only here or here for more stories just like mine.

On the other hand, I have nothing against whale watching or private boaters- I realize that not everyone can or wants to watch from shore. I have even recommended one tour operator to prospective clients, having personally seen the efforts they make towards true regional stewardship. However, I truly believe this proposed rule is a critical piece in the puzzle to protect the whales, with action being long overdue...even if that means sacrifices need to happen- it is time for the rubber to hit the road.

Bottom line, it is worth trying to understand why NOAA has proposed the regulations and what the regulations actually are.


Existing Be Whale Wise Guidelines and San Juan County Watercraft Regulations require boats to maintain a 100 yard distance while viewing whales. Current collaborative research CLEARLY has documented changes in behavior, feeding (decreased foraging) and communication patterns when boats are present, with the behaviors increasing commensurately with the number of boats. Concerns are that 1) the whales will spend less time foraging & 2) they will use more energy- between energetics, less foraging and louder talking, the stressed whales may actually wind up burning more stored energy than is necessary. Studies have also shown that both behavior and voice changes are dramatically reduced ay 200 yards.

Opponents to the increase in yards suggest that "people will not be interested in watching whales from that distance." To the contrary, one could say that additional respect for the tenuous fragility of the species will be instilled in viewers and their experience will be enhanced when the whales are not surrounded by boats. I think we have lived off the species long enough- and we have done this at their expense. The whale watchers unilaterally opposed this portion in a statement issued but did not complain when the whales were listed as endangered- bringing more customers to the islands. I will absolutely agree, though, that the 200 yards will have no less impact without better education, funding and ENFORCEMENT. This is up to our federal government to decide- and hopefully the public outcry will make them aware of how much our community cares.


This is the most common infraction on the books and also carries the greatest risk to the whales. Parking in the path of whales is already part of the voluntary guidelines- this addition would now allow enforcement under law (if passed). Hopefully it increases compliance with increased enforcement efforts and presence.


The west side of San Juan Island between Eagle Cove and Mitchell Bay has been proposed as a one-half mile seaward buffer against the effects of vessels, creating a seasonal sanctuary (much like Robson Bight) for the whales and an enforceable regulation if passed. In the past, there has been a VOLUNTARY 1/4 mile no go zone in the exact same area on the west side of the island. The distinction of the zone makes a clear, readily avoidable area which can be easily enforced if violated. Studies have also clearly shown this is a known foraging area for the orcas and has already been earmarked as a critical habitat for salmon and eelgrass restoration. This is also the area where I have personally seen the most heinous violations.

Following the original Proposed Recovery Plan comment period, I find it interesting that many local associations commended the plan and suggested even stronger efforts. Some specifically suggested a no go zone on the west side of SJI, better reflecting the existing critical habitats and shoreline recovery strategies, citing this addition as a great adjunct to Salmon Recovery efforts.

That being said, every special interest group has completely balked at this portion of the regulations, questioning the science behind it. In doing so, people who are not scientists have chosen to question the validity of studies by internationally respected people...names like David Bain, Robin Baird, John Ford, Graham Ellis, Rob Williams, Richard Osborne, Katherine Ayres, Dawn Noren Adams and so many more. Some chose to ridicule NOAA and Lynne Barre's proposal as if this was not one of the most comprehensive and well written documents ever issued by the agency. The lack of respect shown by some was uncharacteristic of the people in this area--these are the very scientists who have no vested interests in the scientific outcome and are only striving to determine the best means by which to ensure the survival of a struggling population.


I am in favor of the proposed regulations with a request that NOAA consider the following:

1) In retrospect, perhaps NOAA should have worked with fishermen and local officials to ensure universal understanding while shaping a system of reserves amenable to all...just like the Southern California MLPA process. How can this now be managed to bring the community together?

2) I cannot comment on the commercial fishing issues raised at the public hearings- the suggestion that "all of the fish" are in that 1/2 mile proposed NO GO Zone---but this will wind up being a source of contention if not litigation if not adequately addressed prior to implementation.

3) I believe it is unfair to include kayaking in the no go zone- forcing the kayakers offshore by 1/2 mile poses threats to their safety.

4) I do not agree that a SLOW ZONE should replace the proposed NO GO ZONE. I have watched many sailboats and private anglers traveling less than the 7 knots suggested.... traveling over the top and inshore of the whales. I think diluting this NO GO zone will also make enforcement more difficult.

5) I am in favor of suggestions for a permitting system (for both commercial fisheries and whale watch operators) including hefty fines for violators and permit removal with violations. Let violators pay for the enforcement.

6) Some consideration needs to be given to enforceability with Canada and San Juan County so that litigation can be avoided to the best possible extent.

In the interim, NOAA continues to seek public input regarding the proposed regulations on vessel impacts through October 27th at 5:00pm PST. Everyone has a voice and I ask you to have yours be heard. The hearings have unilaterally been attended by SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS who have monetary interests in muddying the proposal to the point of extinction. NOAA needs to hear everyone's thoughts- even those who support the proposed regulations to obtain a clear indication of what the public believes to be warranted to protect the southern resident community of killer whales. You can submit your comments to NOAA in the following ways:

VIA EMAIL AT : or via the federal e-rulemaking portal

VIA MAIL to : Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Services Division

Northwest Regional Office

National Marine FIsheries Service

7600 Sand Point Way NE

Seattle, WA 98115

NOAA is seeking comments including alternatives that have been analyzed in the assessment, impacts, your personal experience with the effects of vessels on the whales, economic impacts and other relevant information you think the agency should consider. Please let your voice be heard, even if it is shaky. The whales need your thoughts and the best possible protection in their watery world throughout the Puget Sound and Salish Sea.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Proposed Vessel Impact Regulations: Let Your Voice Be Heard

Everyone loves the orcas, the question that begs to be considered is---"How Much is Too Much?"

As most people know, NOAA's Fisheries Service has officially proposed new rules on vessel traffic aimed at further protecting Southern Resident killer whales in the Salish Sea region. This could be the most difficult blog article I have ever written- the problems and issues are complex and diverse and each person I've spoken to has an opinion-and a strong one at that. Capturing the essence of such an emotional debate is difficult--making your point in the myriad of self interests seems almost impossible. What I hope to accomplish, at least, is to provide an overview of the issues at hand and have people realize now is the time that your voices need to be heard.


The Southern Resident community of killer whales was originally listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by NOAA Fisheries Service on Nov. 18, 2005. With this listing the agency was then required to develop and implement A Recovery Plan , laying out an adaptive management approach and recovery strategy based on the best available science. The plan was drafted with input from concerned citizens, Federal and State agencies, Tribes, non-profit groups, industries, the academic community all in coordination with Canada. The final draft was issued in January of 2008 with the primary goal being restoring the orcas to a sustainable population size wherein they would no longer require protections afforded by the ESA.


By giving the orcas Endangered Species protections, NOAA was now tasked with developing and implementing a recovery plan. Original efforts to gather management action items to include in an overall conservation plan had already begun back in 2003 and would continue through 2007. Ultimately, after 5 years of input from all of the groups indicated above, three major threats were identified and agreed upon as having the most significant impact and most immediate need to address to protect the SRKW's: prey availability (lack of food), contaminants (water quality, et al) and vessel effects. The top three priorities were established based on frequency and severity faced by the whales throughout the year. And everyone agreed that the findings were step---how to address these issues?

Salmon recovery and contaminants are being addressed in alternative venues while NOAA published specific proposed guidelines entitled Protective Regulations for Killer Whales in the Northwest Region Under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act which focuses on vessel impacts- the third immediate need indicated in the Recovery Plan. After the proposal was published it was afforded a public comment period with additional public meetings in September and October.

You should definitely take the time to read the PROPOSED RULES as they are the core of the discussion at hand. I also want to say that the proposal, authored by Lynne Barre of NOAA, is perhaps the most informative, well rounded and exceptionally written governmental position paper I have ever read. It is informative, addresses the issues in depth and takes the time to accurately correlate impacts to all special interest groups. It is not a "now take this" proposal- Lynne and the scientists behind the proposal clearly care about protecting this endangered species based on the BEST AVAILABLE SCIENCE. A portion of the proposed regulations are basically making the current VOLUNTARY Be Whale Wise Guidelines enforceable by law. However, and I cannot stress this enough, despite guidelines, outreach and education programs and even listing the whales under the ESA, interaction between vessels and whales continue to occur every day in the regions waters. Hence, the proposed regulations.

As an overview, the proposed rules would prohibit vessels from:

- approaching any killer whale closer than 200 yards (AS OPPOSED TO THE 100 YARD RULE IN EFFECT)

- intercepting or parking in the path of a whale (NOW MAKES THIS ENFORCEABLE BY LAW)

- and adds a half-mile-wide no-go zone along the west side of San Juan Island from May 1 through the end of September, where generally no vessels would be allowed.

There would be exemptions to the rules for some vessels, including those actively fishing commercially, cargo vessels traveling in established shipping lanes, and government and research vessels. The no-go zone would also have exemptions for treaty Indian fishing vessels, and limited exceptions for land owners accessing private property adjacent to it.


Over the past three months NOAA has held three public hearing regarding the proposed new regulations on vessel traffic, the last of which occurred on October 5 in Friday Harbor, WA. The meeting was originally scheduled to be held in Grange Hall but was later moved to the Friday Harbor High School when more than 250 people showed up. I will cover the Friday Harbor hearing and provide my thoughts in a post tomorrow.

In the interim, NOAA continues to seek public input regarding the proposed regulations on vessel impacts through October 27th at 5:00pm PST. Everyone has a voice and I ask you to have yours be heard. The hearings have unilaterally been attended by SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS who have monetary interests in muddying the proposal to the point of extinction. NOAA needs to hear everyone's thoughts- even those who support the proposed regulations to obtain a clear indication of what the public believes to be warranted to protect the southern resident community of killer whales. You can submit your comments to NOAA in the following ways:

VIA EMAIL AT : or via the federal e-rulemaking portal

VIA MAIL to : Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Services Division

Northwest Regional Office

National Marine FIsheries Service

7600 Sand Point Way NE

Seattle, WA 98115

NOAA is seeking comments including alternatives that have been analyzed in the assessment, impacts, your personal experience with the effects of vessels on the whales, economic impacts and other relevant information you think the agency should consider. Please let your voice be heard, even if it is shaky. The whales need your thoughts and the best possible protection in their watery world throughout the Puget Sound and Salish Sea.