Passions run high on the issue of how to best protect resident killer whales in the waters off the San Juan Islands.
A public comment period on a proposal that could help them ends Thursday.
Orca whales communicate underwater with complex calls that researchers say are a language all their own. And they use echolocation to find their way around.
But the southern resident orca population is on the brink of extinction. At last count, there were only 78 left in the wild. That prompted the idea of establishing a protective zone for the iconic creatures.
Scott West is leading the effort. He’s executive director of a group called Orca Relief. The zone would be on the western side of San Juan Island.
“We’re trying to do everything possible to help the southern residents," he said. "And setting up a zone where they can be free from some of the harassment and the noise that actually masks and makes the orcas unable to find the fish that are there – is a good thing.”
But there are dozens of small businesses that that oppose the regulation.
“Really what this is is a 'no-go zone' for whale-watching boats,” said Jeff Friedman, co-owner of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching in San Juan and the U.S. president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.
“The petition that was filed by Orca Relief calls for all-motorized vessels with possible exemptions, but when you hear them talking about it, they are basically saying this should only apply to whale-watching boats. Any other boats, the 'no-go zone' would not apply to," Friedman said.
NOAA Fisheries – the federal agency overseeing the process and taking statements on the proposed orca protection zone says staffers will start compiling the comments soon. Advocates for the new regulation say they just want to keep the conversation going, so they’re urging people to chime in at least in favor of that.