New lawsuit seeks protection zone for Northwest orcas

New lawsuit seeks protection zone for Northwest orcas

SeattlePI.com

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SEATTLE (AP) — A new U.S. lawsuit filed Monday seeks to establish a whale protection zone for endangered orcas in the Pacific Northwest.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance sued NOAA Fisheries in U.S. District Court in Seattle, saying the agency has failed to act on a petition it filed in 2016.

The petition sought to bar vessels from a 10- to 12-square-mile (26- to 31-square-kilometer) area west of San Juan Island where the orcas, called southern resident killer whales, feed from April through September each year. Any vessels exempted from the ban would be required to abide by a "no wake" rule in the zone.

Researchers say the whales have been largely missing from their usual summer feeding grounds this year, apparently because their preferred prey — Chinook salmon — have been so scarce.

Canada has already announced that no vessel traffic will be allowed from June through October in three sanctuary zones in prime orca feeding habitat, and at the urging of Gov. Jay Inslee's task force on the whales, Washington state has adopted new restrictions requiring boats to keep at least 300 yards (274 meters) away from the animals.

"Southern Residents need more salmon and better protection throughout their range," Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the center, said in a written statement. "But let's start by giving them the peace and quiet they need to find food in the Salish Sea."

In a statement emailed by spokesman Michael Milstein, NOAA Fisheries said it supports the already-existing voluntary "no-go" zone, announced by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, that extends one-quarter mile (400 meters) off the west coast of San Juan Island. The agency noted that it had received more than 1,000 sharply divided comments on the...

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