Southern Resident killer whales are facing extinction. So this summer, the federal government is asking all boats to stay away from the whales' favorite place to find their favorite food: Chinook salmon.
NOAA has expanded a voluntary "no-go zone" for boats off the west side of San Juan Island.
"The boats are something we can address immediately," explained NOAA Southern Resident killer whale Recovery Coordinator Lynne Barre.
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 for half a mile.
But the zone has its critics. The rule is a source of ire among fishermen, especially charter businesses that depend on the summer season for income that often helps them make it through the rest of the year. Some say they're an easy target for government action that will do nothing significant to help the whales.
"Our impact is so minimal compared to other impacts when we talk about noise generation and salmon being removed from Puget Sound," said Highliner Charters owner Brett Rosson. "You're doing something so it appears you're making progress but you're not making progress toward helping the Southern Resident killer whales."
Rosson points to predators like birds and sea lions, as well as toxic contaminants in the water, a push for more hatchery fish production, and larger noise-making boats like the ferry system.
"There is a whole world of salmon recovery going on in our region, along the whole west coast and Canada," Barre said. "There's a lot being done on habitat, hydropower, hatcheries, and harvest is one of those pieces."
Barre admits fishermen are just one piece of a complicated puzzle, but says it's something achievable in the near-term to give the whales some relief.
"What we're saying is, that's great but by taking us off the west side of San Juan Island, you're not going to change a thing. I don't think we're going to move the needle one bit toward saving the orca," Rosson said.
For Rosson, the move makes no sense. He calls it a symbolic act that's more for political aesthetics than it is helpful for the orcas.
"It hurts our business. It hurts one of the prime sources of recreation for Washington, which is fishing. Not just business, but for a father and son or husband a wife who want to fish for a weekend," Rosson said. "All you're doing is destroying that to try and save the orca but it's not going to do anything. I understand saving the orca. I'm all about that. I think it's very important. But let's use something that's going to work. Let's do something that makes sense."