Despite law, no fines have been issued for whale-space violators
Source: Alexa Vaughn, Seattle Times
For more than a year boat owners have been warned to stay at least 200 yards from Puget Sound's killer whales, or risk being fined.
But the federal agency that enforces the new rules said Thursday it will not fine a boat owner who did just that off Orcas Island this week.
In fact, an environmental group claims it has reported more than 1,600 similar violations since the law went into effect in May 2011, and yet no boater has been fined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Warnings and educational literature are what NOAA is opting for now as they acquaint more people with the law, said spokesman Brian Gorman. Fines may still play a role in the future, Gorman said.
Whale advocates, though, want to see more enforcement to try to revive the whale population.
The Puget Sound orcas, known as the southern resident population, were declared an endangered species in 2005. Counting a calf spotted in May, there are 88 whales in three pods called J, K and L. Research shows that the physical presence and sound of vessels are partly responsible for the species' population decline.
"An enforcement presence on the water will change people's behavior," said Jenny Atkinson, executive director of The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. "But people telling them about the regulations is not the only way we're going to do this right."
The fines can be steep: Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, civil penalties can reach $11,000, and fines under the Endangered Species Act could be as high as $32,500, Gorman said.
"Our intention has been all along, for the first two years, to depend more on warnings rather than coming along like gangbusters," Gorman said. "We want to figure out if people are paying attention to the rules and we only have one year of data so far."
On Wednesday, a 25-foot boat was spotted within the 200-yard buffer zone near Orcas. The Coast Guard responded and gave the boaters a warning, leaving the decision on whether to fine them up to NOAA.
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