Conservation groups sued the Trump administration Monday for ignoring a legal petition to create a no-go zone for boats in the prime fishing areas of endangered southern resident orcas.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Washington by the Center for Biological Diversity and Orca Relief Citizens Alliance (ORCA). The suit comes after three more orcas were presumed dead this summer, dropping their population to 73.
The proposal calls for a rule to exclude vessels from the orcas’ prime feeding areas — a designated “whale protection zone” — from April-September each year to protect the orcas from noise and disturbance. A “no wake” speed limit would apply to any vessels exempted from the exclusion, such as government vessels.
A spokesman for the whale-watch industry in Washington state said work is underway to reduce impact on the whales, including new state rules that would limit how many vessels and how many hours whale-watching boats may follow the southern residents.
The commercial tour boats provide a presence on the water that alerts recreational boaters to the whales so that they can avoid them, said Kelly Balcomb-Bartok, spokesman for the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “They provide a sentinel role. Without the whale-watch fleet, there is nothing to tell that Bayliner to slow down. Continuing to hammer on the industry is not helping. Let’s focus on the fish, that is the real problem.”
But with chinook salmon scarce throughout the orcas’ feeding range, the southern residents need help to find food, the suit argues.
“These orcas are dying out and urgently need our help. Creating a whale-protection zone in the heart of their habitat is a crucial step we can take today,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the center. “Southern residents need more salmon and better protection throughout their range. But let’s start by giving them the peace and quiet they need to find food in the Salish Sea.”
The missing orcas, J17, K25 and L84, showed signs of malnutrition before disappearing.
The orcas have declined to their lowest population in 40 years. In addition to a lack of prey availability and pollution, the orcas are harmed by boat traffic and noise, which masks the echolocation they use to feed, navigate and communicate.
“The southern residents flourished in these waters for thousands of years,” said Janet Thomas, executive director of ORCA. “They are among the most intelligent marine mammals in the oceans of the world and are held sacred to indigenous peoples along the West Coast. They need their home back.”
Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee’s southern resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force recommended nearly 40 measures to protect the orcas in Puget Sound, including vessel restrictions in orca habitat. The Legislature adopted only a handful of the recommendations. Canada went further in May, announcing that no vessel traffic would be allowed from June through October in three “interim sanctuary zones” in prime orca-feeding habitat.
In April the center also sued the Trump administration to compel an updated analysis of how salmon fishing is harming the endangered orcas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has agreed to issue that analysis before next May 1. In response to another center lawsuit, the Trump administration announced last month that by Oct. 7 it will propose expanding critical-habitat protections to cover the southern residents’ full West Coast range.
Meanwhile, several Washington-state-based whale-watch companies also have succeeded in keeping an initiative off San Juan County voters’ ballot that would have required whale watchers to keep a greater distance from the southern residents. The whale-watch companies argued the local rule would have preempted the new state law, passed by the Legislature, which is more lenient.
NOAA, charged with protecting the whales and recovering their population, supports a voluntary no-go zone, Michael Milstein, spokesman for the agency, said in a statement.
“NOAA Fisheries supports the long-term voluntary no-go zone on the west side of San Juan Island that is part of the San Juan County Marine Stewardship Area and is recognized by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and other partners,” Milstein stated.
The agency received more than 1,000 sharply divided comments on a petition asking NOAA Fisheries to establish a federal zone to prohibit boat traffic in the area, Milstein said.