Stock Photo of Orca

Orca breaches water

A Skagit County Superior Court judge ruled last week that voters and counties do not have the authority to determine rules for boats that are in the vicinity of orca whales.

That and a legal battle that began Monday in U.S. District Court in Seattle are the latest in an effort to save the Southern Resident orcas that frequent the Salish Sea.

Despite being federally listed as endangered in 2005, the population — comprised of three family groups called J, K and L pods — has continued to decline and recently reached a low of 73 whales.

On Thursday, Judge David Svaren struck down a proposed ballot initiative in which San Juan County voters would have been asked whether they wanted to require boats to stay 650 yards away from Southern Resident orcas.

After hearing arguments from those who proposed the measure and whale watching companies who filed the lawsuit to stop it, Svaren determined “the initiative at issue is not within the scope of initiative power; is preempted by state and federal law; and shall not be placed on the 2019 San Juan County General Election ballot, or any subsequent ballot,” according to court documents.

State and federal law — determined by NOAA Fisheries and by the state Department of Fish & Wildlife — dictates that boats stay at least 400 yards from Southern Resident orcas and observe a 7-knot speed limit when within half a mile of the endangered whales.

Those who launched the San Juan County Orca Protection Initiative wanted San Juan County to go beyond those requirements, extending the minimum distance to 650 yards in local waters.

Led by Sorrel North of Lopez Island, proponents of the initiative gathered signatures early this year to get the measure on the ballot for San Juan County voters.

That initiative, which was being processed by the San Juan County Auditor’s Office, will not appear on the November ballot, according to Svaren’s ruling.

The initiative was brought to a halt by a lawsuit filed in May by Island Adventures of Anacortes, Pacific Cruises Northwest of Bellingham, San Juan Safaris of Friday Harbor and Puget Sound Express of Port Townsend and Edmonds.

San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord, who provided information for the case, said San Juan County weighed the possibility of setting boat-orca interaction rules in 2007 and decided against it.

“The responsibility and authority to protect the orca whale presently rests with federal authorities. ... The County Council should use all of its power and energy to assist the federal agencies responsible,” San Juan County documents provided by Gaylord state.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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