A proposal to exclude whale-watching boats from nearshore waters off San Juan Island in Puget Sound has been revived by a local orca protection group, Orca Relief Citizens Alliance. A similar plan was proposed by NOAA in 2009-11, but was abandoned after push-back from whale-watching groups, with a speed limit introduced instead. In recent years, the population of resident orcas has fallen to a 30-year low, and is down to 77 after 4 deaths during 2014, including the first new calf to be born in two years.
“This is only an immediate solution to a dire situation,” said Orca Relief Executive Director Bruce Stedman. “When salmon levels are so low, the whales are very stressed when searching for food. Pursuit from whale watching boats causes more stress.”
However, the proposed “no-go” zone contains just 0.5% of the resident orcas’ federally designated critical habitat and is heavily used by orcas for just a few weeks a year, so the idea been criticized by both whale watching groups and some orca advocates, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. “The no-go zone is an absurd waste of concern and a futile effort legally,” Balcomb said. “The whales will go where the chinook salmon are in abundance, and it is these fish that should receive our concern.”