Activists lobbying to get protective zones for endangered killer whales in area

SEATTLE -- They are icons of the Pacific Northwest, but the Southern Resident killer whales are still struggling. Their number is down to 77, the lowest in 30 years.

Now, Washington state activists are putting pressure on the federal government to create a protection zone around an area where the orcas gather to feed.

“They are simply not recovering,” said Bruce Stedman with Orca Relief Citizen’s Alliance. “They're in serious trouble.”

Stedman’s group believes the orcas would do a lot better if a protective zone was placed around a spot where the whales like to feed.

“They would have more peace and quiet, for resting, socializing, and especially feeding.”

They are presenting a proposal to the National Marine Fisheries Service, asking regulators to consider a three-quarter-mile-wide zone off San Juan Island, including a no-wake zone to keep whale-watching boats back.

The activist group is now traveling around the state to garner support for the idea of a protective zone, and they are bolstered by a recent NOAA study that found boat noise was one of the primary factors hurting the animals, along with pollution, and a decline in Chinook salmon.

Michael Harris, with the Pacific Whale Watch Network, calls the idea of a protective zone misguided, pointing out that it was boat operators that came up with the 200-yard buffer rule already in place.

“The problem is salmon,” said Harris. “No fish, no black fish. If we can figure out a way to start putting fish back into the water, we can buy time for these orcas and we can bring them back.”

Steaman agrees the whales need more fish and less polluted water, but those goals could take years. A protective zone, he said, could be done almost immediately.