San Juan shutdown?

Editor's note: Based in North Puget Sound and operating from Alaska to Baja, Joel Shangle has been a news junkie on the West Coast saltwater scene since the 1990s, first as editor of California Fishing & Hunting News' and now as editor of California Sportsman, which hits newsstands in October. He's the host of Northwest Wild Country, a popular fishing and hunting radio show airing throughout western Washington, and has the deepest source list this side of the Library of Congress. In other words: if you're catching fish on the West Coast, just try to get away from him.

ANACORTES, Wash. — Sport anglers will no longer be able to fish the west side of Washington's San Juan Island during the peak of the summer and early-fall Chinook season if a new killer-whale protection zone is approved by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Citing a need to "further (protect) Southern Resident killer whales in Washington's Puget Sound," NOAA is proposing a half-mile-wide "no-go zone" along the west side of one of the largest islands in the San Juan Archipelago, a collection of 450 islands on the U.S./Canada border in extreme northern Puget Sound, 65 miles north of Seattle.

The proposed rules would prohibit all vessels from approaching within 200 yards of ESA-protected killer whales, but, more onerous to sport anglers in one of the most popular salmon-fishing destinations in the Pacific Northwest, they would also institute a half-mile-wide exclusionary zone from May 1 through the end of September where a limited amount of vessel traffic would be allowed off the San Juan shoreline from Mitchell Bay to Eagle Point .

That traffic would not include sport boats, but would include actively fishing tribal commercial vessels, cargo vessels traveling in established shipping lanes, vessels operated by landowners residing on the west side of the Island, and boats utilized for government or research functions.

"There are a lot of recreational anglers who like to fish off that west side because of its access to kings in the summer," says Frank Urabeck, representative of the Fishermen's Coalition, a consortium of San Juan-area businesses, salmon conservation groups and charterboat operators. "Being precluded from fishing there would still allow access to pink salmon and coho, but for the Chinook fisherman, this is going to hurt."

The west side of San Juan Island — which falls into Marine Area 7 under Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife marine-management regulations — has long been one of the most productive, popular Chinook salmon fisheries in the San Juans.

If the proposed no-go zone is mandated, it'll prevent sport anglers from accessing three of the most historical king fisheries in the North Sound: Lime Kiln Light, Pile Point and Eagle Point.

"It's disheartening to see a large piece of water that's extremely productive during certain parts of the summer be closed," says Jay Field, owner of Dash One Charters in Anacortes, and a longtime local angler. "I get calls from people who specifically want to fish the west side of San Juan Island, because you can get a 40-pounder there.

"It's one of our best Chinook spots, and to lose that part of our fishery is disappointing, and a little alarming. If NOAA shuts this area down, are the rest of the San Juans next? The killer whales travel down Rosario Strait and they go down Bellingham Channel, too. Are those the next to be shut down?"

The Southern Resident killer whale population was listed under the Endangered Species Act in November of 2005, two years after NOAA Fisheries Service listed the Eastern North Pacific Southern Resident population as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The members of the three family orca pods in the Southern Resident group — designated as J, K and L pods — number in the high 80s to low 90s now, but historical numbers have fluctuated between the low 70s in 1975 (the end of an eight-year period where an estimated 47 orcas were captured for placement in marine aquariums throughout the country) to a high of 99 in 1995.

J, K & L pods circulate throughout the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound from spring to fall, when Chinook salmon numbers are at their highest in those areas.

It's been estimated that roughly 70 percent of a killer whale's salmonid diet is comprised of Chinook, and that an adult killer whale can consume roughly 30 adult Chinook salmon per day. The combined extrapolated consumption of the three Puget Sounds pods is over 750,000 Chinook per year.

"We're concerned about the lack of science behind these changes," Urabeck says. "We don't feel as though we've seen any science from NOAA that shows that recreational fishing harms the whales. In reality, most recreational anglers care deeply about the killer whale. If something has to be done to protect them, we're in favor of that. The science I've seen, though, doesn't support anything nearly as draconian as what's being proposed."

Vessels are currently asked to follow the "Be Whale Wise" guidelines, which are intended to protect whales from harassment. Those guidelines call for a 100-yard no-go zone and a 400-yard "slow zone" around all whales.

A voluntary no-go zone currently asks all boaters for a ¼-mile cushion in the same area being proposed for the ½-mile no-go zone.

"After the past 1,000 pages I've read, I'm about to vomit at how thin and speculative the science is," says Shane Aggergaard at Island Adventures, a former charter captain who now runs 280 whale-watching trips a year in the San Juans. "This is a circular, speculative argument with nothing that's concrete. There's never been any proven longterm or short term negative effect on killer whales from vessel traffic."

NOAA Fisheries will participate in three public meetings in late September and early October where public testimony on the potential changes will be discussed. Implementation of the proposed changes, if approved, would be in May of 2010.