aquatic conservation




Title: Endangered and Threatened Species; Petition for Rulemaking To Establish a Whale Protection Zone for Southern Resident Killer Whales

Docket ID: NOAA-NMFS-2017-00437

Agency: DOC-NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service

Comments Close: April 13, 2017



National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) received a petition for rulemaking to establish a whale protection zone to reduce noise and disturbance in the San Juan Islands, Washington, to support recovery of endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The whale protection zone proposed would extend three-quarters of a mile offshore of San Juan Island. NMFS is requesting comments on the petition and will consider all comments and available information when determining whether to accept the petition and proceed with the suggested rulemaking. 



The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed and finalized vessel traffic regulations that prohibit parking vessels in the path of whales and included an approach rule with the whales. A protected area was originally included in these regulations, but was eventually excluded because of the degree of public opposition. 

Since these regulations, NMFS has conducted a public workshop and communicated with interested groups (including the petitioners). NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center has conducted further research on the impact of vessel traffic on Southern Resident killer whales.

The current petition in question was filed in November 2016 by the Orca Relief Citizen's Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, and Project Seawolf. The area proposed by petitioners is similar to, but wider and longer than the protected area previously proposed by NMFS. Petitioners also propose that NMFS include a one quarter-mile wide buffer adjacent to the whale protection zone.

The petitioners base their arguments on the Endangered Species Act (ESA). ESA prohibits any “take” on endangered populations. The petitioners argue that “take”, which can be defined as harassment, harm, pursuit, or any attempt to engage, occurs when commercial and private motorized vessels follow the Southern Resident Killer Whales. If this proposed rule were accepted, NMFS would utilize authorities under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).



The National Marine Fisheries Service is soliciting information from the public, governmental agencies, Tribes, the scientific community, industry, environmental entities, and any other interested parties concerning the petitioned action. They request that all information be accompanied by supporting documentation such as maps, bibliographic references, or reprints of pertinent publications. Comments are specifically invited on the following subjects:

  1. If there is the need for regulations to establish a whale protection zone (and if it is advisable).
  2. Any scientific and commercial information regarding the effects of vessels on killer whales and their habitat.
  3. If the proposed geographic scope of the regulated whale protection zone is appropriate.
  4. If there are alternative management options for regulating vessel interactions with killer whales.
  5. Any information regarding potential economic effects of regulating vessel interactions.
  6. Any additional relevant information that should be considered prior to the agencies accepting the petition.

Contributor: M.S. Student, Arctic Ecology