Judge overturns San Juan Islands ballot measure on whale-watching distance rules

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Whale-watching travel companies rejected a proposal for an orca protection initiative during the November ballot in San Juan County, Washington. The ballot measure would have asked voters to dramatically increase the safe distance between boats and endangered orcas.

San Juan County is normally a prime feeding area for the declining Southern Resident Killer Whale population. However, this year the critically endangered killer whales have been largely absent from the archipelago, likely because their preferred Chinook salmon prey is in short supply.

The ballot measure was intended to create a 650-meter buffer zone around endangered resident orcas when they are present in San Juan County waters to reduce vessel disturbance to the animals. This distancing rule would have roughly doubled the recently expanded no-go zone established by the Washington legislature. Earlier this year, state lawmakers voted to increase the viewing distance from 200 yards to 300 yards. Additionally, boats are now prohibited from following closer than 400 meters behind a pod of endangered orcas.

Related: New lawsuit calls for protection zone for northwest orcas

On Thursday, a judge in neighboring Skagit County granted a request from four whale-watching companies to quash the proposed initiative. The case was heard in Skagit County because San Juan County was named as a defendant.

The whale watching industry argued in its pre-election challenge that the killer whale protection initiative encroaches on regulatory authority that belongs to state and federal governments. The San Juan County prosecutor echoed that assertion in his own legal filing, saying the case did not fall under a local ballot measure.

“That’s not the process by which to put an enforcement-level tactic on the water,” said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, communications director for the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “That’s not how it goes.”

Supporters of the orca initiative collected more than 2,600 petition signatures to qualify for the fall ballot. The minimum required to be on the county ballot is 1,635. The campaign said in a Facebook post that it was deeply disappointed that “the people have been stripped of their rights and corporate interests have prevailed”.

Lopez Island’s grandmother, Sorrel North, organized the advocacy group Southern Resident Protection to sponsor and promote the San Juan County Citizens’ Initiative. Facebook’s update says the group’s members have gone into personal debt due to the legal challenge, but the campaign won’t stop until the orcas have more space to feed, hunt and communicate in peace.

Related: Nonprofit looks to San Juan Islands for retired captive orca sanctuary

“After an unprecedented absence, the whales finally returned home a few days ago to look for salmon and they are already being hunted by masses of boats from dawn to dusk,” Southern Resident Protection wrote. “It’s a shameful sight.”

Balcomb-Bartok, who lives on San Juan Island, said the proposed viewing distance of 650 meters for whale-watching boats would be impractical and potentially counterproductive.

“If we were to have been pushed back into San Juan County 650 yards, then we are doing nothing but witnessing half a mile away the constant and continuous harassment of whales by ships that might even not knowing the whales are around,” Balcomb-Bartok said Monday. “The role of the professional whale watching community is that of sentinels. This ability to provide a buffer zone and a visual warning that [whales] are present is a very powerful tool that ensures the protection of whales.”

San Juan County Auditor F. Milene Henley said she doesn’t expect an immediate appeal of Superior Court Judge David Svaren’s ruling because the 2019 general election ballot is on the table. close to being finalized. However, Henley predicted “people will be upset” when news spreads across the islands that the ballot measure has been struck down given that supporters have put a lot of work into it.

Meanwhile in Seattle on Monday,

two environmental groups filed a complaint

in United States District Court against the federal government in an attempt to establish a whale protection zone in a 10 to 12 square mile area west of San Juan Island. The lawsuit seeks to ban most boats from the area from April to September so endangered resident orcas can enjoy “peace and quiet” while they forage for food.

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