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.


Traci said...

Very well done Sandy!!! I agree with you all the way!!!!

Sandy Buckley said...

Thank you Traci!!! :)

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