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County to draft local regulations to save whales from harassment

Keeping boats from approaching too closely to killer whales has depended on voluntary compliance, educational brochures and the work of Soundwatch. A new tool may be on the way. The county prosecutor has been directed to draft an ordinance which would make it a violation to harrass orcas.

Prosecutor Randy Gaylord had advised the council the county did not have the authority to do so at previous meetings.

Yesterday, (May 15, 2007) at the council meeting on Lopez Island, Melanie Rowlins, a NOAA attorney, speaking on behalf of herself and a several other attorneys, said such a regulation would be "helpful from a conservation standpoint. "As far as a conflict between the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Act preventing local regulations, she said, "Congress has spoken to this issue. With respect to ESA, wherever a conflict between ESA and MMPA, the stricter of the two prevail."

Regarding using current federal regulations to stop the harrassment of whales, Gaylord said his office reviewed video last year which allegedly showed a boat powering through a pod of whales. His office considered filing charges but decided it was better to have the feds do it.

Rowlins said, "We have to go all the way through the Department of Justice for enforcement action. I don't think you'll see it."

Russ Mullins, the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife sergeant in charge of the Puget Sound division has been working in San Juan Island engaged in the marine mammal outreach. His program is grant funded through NOAA. He currently doesn't have the ability to take enforcement action. Asked by Councilmember Alan Lichter if a local ordinance would help, he said it would.

The draft ordinance will come before the council. Once they approve the draft, it will go out for public hearing before possible adoption.

Gaylord cautioned the council, the downside could be the county being sued for civil rights violations.

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