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San Juan Islands Angler Leery Of Voluntary No-boat Zone For Orcas

Kevin Klein has done his part to feed starving southern resident killer whales in Puget Sound.

As he fought a very big Chinook in the San Juans a few summers ago, a bull from J-pod swam over from a quarter mile away and chomped off the meatiest bits of the salmon.


The encounter left Klein temporarily deflated and holding a 5-pound fish head, but also gave him a new appreciation for the “giant marine super predator.”

That might help explain why he’s not too crazy about WDFW’s request yesterday for boaters to voluntarily avoid a quarter- to half-mile-wide strip along much of the west side of San Juan Island, prime feeding and fishing grounds for orcas and anglers alike.

The goal is to reduce human activity there and follows federal overseers’ call to do more to protect the endangered pods in Washington waters.

But Klein says it won’t do a bit of good to help out the killer whales and instead is just a “feel-good ‘win'” for the species’ enthusiasts.

“They did something. Picked some low-hanging fruit so now the grant money can keep coming in. If there is no problem with the killer whales, then professional orca advocates don’t have funding or jobs. So it’s in their best interests to perpetuate a problem rather that actually addressing the tougher issues that would help the whales,” says the Anacortes-based angler and yacht brokerage employee.

Lined up against fixes such as increasing hatchery salmon production and reducing pinniped and fish-eating bird predation are groups like the overly litigious Wild Fish Conservancy and PETA, which Klein claims are ready to sue the state as well as “take on even the Puget Sound tribes and boycott casinos if you start culling cuddly seals and sea lions.”

Other challenges include northern fleets’ interception of salmon bound for Northwest rivers, which in some cases have severe habitat issues.

He says he doesn’t want people to chase whales and notes that there are laws against that already.

The state legislature passed a measure in 2008, and a 2011 rule from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration bars “vessels from approaching any killer whale closer than 200 yards and forbid vessels from intercepting a whale or positioning the vessel in its path” in Washington’s inside waters.

But NOAA has been pushing for more and more action, and earlier this year Governor Jay Inslee signed an executive order directing WDFW and other state agencies to do all they could to help out the killer whales.

That included bumping hatchery production, though it will take several years for those fish to become available, and pruning salmon seasons in some areas.

When we posted WDFW’s press release on its “difficult request” to San Juan Islands fishermen Tuesday afternoon, anglers generally reacted against it.

They’ve already kicked us in the teeth taking September Chinook away. So … no,” wrote Bellingham angler Rory O’Connor, referring to the closure of the popular Chinook fishery that time of year in the islands.

Besides seven likes of the post, there were no supportive comments, though there was more on the agency’s version.

According to WDFW, the voluntary no-go zone — a quarter-mile strip of shoreline from Mitchell Bay to Cattle Point, with a half-mile bubble around Lime Kiln Lighthouse — is the “most frequently” used feeding and lounging area for southern residents.


“This step will help support killer whale recovery and prevents a potential delay in federal approval for our salmon fisheries throughout the entire Sound,” Fish Program chief Ron Warren said in a press release.

He takes the long view, adding that recovering orcas “will mean more salmon returning to Puget Sound each year, which will benefit anglers” too.

Ultimately, the request is another straw on the usual camel’s back, sportfishermen, who are already bearing the burden of Washington’s failure as a whole to stem the loss of salmon.

Is it one straw too many this time, or the wrong straw?

“Really, we all know that the orcas aren’t bothered one bit by our 20- to 30-foot rec boats trolling at 2 mph,” says Klein. “The best thing a small rec boat can do is just keep trolling and let the whales react to you on a predictable path. If anything, they are attracted to us and curious. I think they know exactly what we are doing and might even think it’s funny.”

“They are highly advanced super predators. Top of the food chain, with sonar and perceptions of their world that we can’t begin to fathom,” he says. “Give them some credit. They’ll thrive with more fish in the water.”

‘A Difficult Request,’ But WDFW Asks Boaters To Avoid Strip Along Fishy Western San Juan Island


State fish and wildlife managers are asking anglers and other boaters to avoid an area along the west side of San Juan Island in an effort to protect a dwindling population of southern resident killer whales.

Despite state and federal government protection, the population of southern resident killer whales has declined from 98 whales in 1995 to just 76 in December 2017. Major threats to the whales include a lack of prey – chinook salmon, in particular – disturbance from vessel traffic and noise, as well as toxic contaminants.


The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) will be working with partner agencies and stakeholder groups to help educate people about the voluntary “no-go” zone, which applies to all recreational boats – fishing or otherwise – as well as commercial vessels.

The no-go zone is located on the west side of San Juan Island, including:

  • From Mitchell Bay in the north to Cattle Point in the south, extending a quarter-mile offshore for the entire stretch.
  • In an area around the Lime Kiln Lighthouse, the no-go zone extends further offshore – half of a mile.

A map of these areas is available on WDFW’s website at https://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/orca/, where boaters also can find existing regulations on properly operating vessels near orcas.

These waters represent the areas in the San Juan Islands that southern resident killer whales most frequently use for foraging and socializing. To improve conditions for the whales, WDFW is asking vessel operators to stay out of these key areas to allow the whales a quiet area to feed.

“This voluntary no-go zone is a good step in helping to reduce human impacts in an important foraging area for southern resident killer whales,” said Penny Becker, WDFW’s policy lead on killer whales.

In March, the governor signed an executive order creating a task force and directing WDFW and other state agencies to take immediate action to benefit southern resident killer whales. In designing this year’s salmon fisheries, the department reduced fisheries in areas – such as the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Admiralty Inlet – important to orcas.

In late April, NOAA Fisheries asked the state to take additional action to protect southern resident killer whales during the upcoming fishing season. In response, the state included the voluntary measure in a set of actions NOAA should consider as the federal agency develops authorization for Puget Sound salmon fisheries.

“This step will help support killer whale recovery and prevents a potential delay in federal approval for our salmon fisheries throughout the entire Sound,” said Ron Warren, head of WDFW’s fish program.

Warren acknowledged that this is a difficult request to make of anglers who fish the San Juans, given the reduced opportunities for salmon fishing in the area this year. But there are a variety of other salmon fisheries in Puget Sound this season.

In particular, he noted that in other areas of the Sound anglers have more opportunities to fish for coho salmon than in recent years. More information about this year’s salmon fisheries can be found online at https://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/northfalcon/.

Warren said there is an exception for vessels participating in a commercial fishery targeting Fraser River sockeye that takes place in the northern portion of the no-go zone, given the limited number of commercial openings (six to eight days) this year.

As part of the governor’s directive, WDFW is working with NOAA and state agencies to increase hatchery production of salmon to benefit southern resident killer whales. However, it will take three to four years for fish released from Washington hatcheries to be available as returning adults for the whales.

WDFW also will continue to work with tribal co-managers and other agencies to restore salmon habitat.

“Our efforts to recover killer whales ultimately will mean more salmon returning to Puget Sound each year, which will benefit anglers as well as orcas,” Warren said.

More information about the governor’s task force is available online at https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/energy-environment/southern-resident-killer-whale-recovery-and-task-force.