Conservation groups sued the Trump administration on Monday for ignoring a legal petition to create a no-boat zone in key fishing grounds for endangered southern resident orcas.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington by the Center for Biological Diversity and Orca Relief Citizens Alliance (ORCA). The lawsuit comes after three more orcas were presumed dead this summer, bringing their population down to 73.
The proposal calls for a rule to exclude vessels from key orca feeding grounds – a designated “whale protection zone” – from April to September each year to protect orcas from noise and disturbance. A “no-wake” speed limit would apply to all vessels exempt from the exclusion, such as government vessels.
A spokesperson for the whale watching industry in Washington state said work is underway to reduce the impact on whales, including new state rules that would limit the number of ships and the number of hours that whale-watching boats can track southern residents.
Commercial tour boats provide a presence on the water that alerts boaters to whales so they can avoid them, said Kelly Balcomb-Bartok, spokeswoman for the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “They play a sentinel role. Without the whale watching fleet, there is no sign that Bayliner is slowing down. Continuing to hammer the industry does not help. Let’s focus on the fish, that’s the real problem.
But with chinook salmon rare throughout the orca’s foraging range, southern residents need help finding food, according to the suit.
“These killer whales are dying and urgently need our help. Creating a whale protection zone in the heart of their habitat is a critical step we can take today,” said Julie Teel Simmonds “Residents in the south need more salmon and better protection across their range. But let’s start by giving them the peace and quiet they need to find food in the Salish Sea.
The missing killer whales, J17, K25 and L84, showed signs of malnutrition before disappearing.
Killer whales have declined to their lowest population in 40 years. In addition to a lack of available prey and pollution, killer whales are harmed by boat traffic and noise, which masks the echolocation they use to feed, navigate and communicate.
“Residents of the south have thrived in these waters for thousands of years,” said ORCA executive director Janet Thomas. “They are among the most intelligent marine mammals in the world’s oceans and are considered sacred to indigenous peoples of the West Coast. They need to find their home.
Last year, Governor Jay Inslee’s Southern Killer Whale Recovery Task Force recommended nearly 40 measures to protect orcas in Puget Sound, including restrictions on vessels in orca habitat. The Legislative Assembly passed only a handful of recommendations. Canada went further in May, announcing that no boat traffic would be allowed from June to October in three “provisional sanctuary areas” in prime orca feeding habitat.
In April, the center also sued the Trump administration to compel an updated analysis of how salmon fishing harms endangered orcas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has agreed to publish this analysis by May 1. In response to another lawsuit against the center, the Trump administration announced last month that by Oct. 7 it will propose expanding critical habitat protections to cover all southern residents. West Coast Channel.
Meanwhile, several Washington state-based whale-watching companies also successfully blocked San Juan County voters from voting on a move that would have required whale watchers to hold to a greater distance from southern residents. Whale-watching companies argued that 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 area, agency spokesman Michael Milstein said in a statement.
“NOAA Fisheries supports the long-term Voluntary No-Go Area on the west side of San Juan Island, which is part of the San Juan County Marine Stewardship Area and is recognized by the Department of Fisheries and of Washington Wildlife and other partners,” Milstein said.
The agency received more than 1,000 sharply divided comments on a petition asking NOAA Fisheries to establish a federal zone to ban boat traffic in the area, Milstein said.