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.
HISTORY AND BACKGROUND
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.
THE RECOVERY PLAN OVERVIEW
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 valid...next 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 : firstname.lastname@example.org 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.