SEATTLE — Would a “whale protection zone” on the western side of San Juan Island protect endangered Southern resident orcas from a constant barrage of boats that disrupt feeding, navigation and communication for the whales?
Or, would a zone hurt the area tourist industry and local boaters, doing little to improve the fate of the whales as they struggle to find food?
The public comment period on a proposed whale protection zone along the west side of the San Juan Island ends 9 p.m. Thursday. It's the last chance for those concerned about the protection zone to get their comments in to the Fisheries Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The zone off the west side of San Juan Island would extend three-quarter miles offshore with an extra quarter-mile buffer zone. It would ban whale watching boats, and commercial and private craft in the zones.
The zone would run from Mitchell Point down to the southernmost end of the island at Cattle Point.
Three Washington state environmental groups -- Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance, Seawolf and Center for Biological Diversity -- petitioned the federal government in November to create the zone.
By mid-afternoon Thursday, NOAA had received more than 850 public comments on the proposal which would implement a whale protection zone.
A similar zone was considered in 2009, but did not go ahead because of strong opposition.
WATCH: NOAA Fisheries wants to hear from you
Once the public comment period is closed, NOAA will decide whether or not to move forward. It will take at least a couple of months to sort through the comments and make a decision whether or not to move forward.
"NOAA could easily come out and say, 'No, we don't think there is the support necessary' and it's over," said Scott West, with Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance. "NOAA could come out and say yes we think this is a good idea, while there is opposition, there is support so lets get into a rule making phase."
The proposed zone is just one part of NOAA's comprehensive plan to help boost the Southern resident orca population. But Lynne Barre, a specialist with NOAA, says they want to hear from all sides.
"We do a full analysis on both the animals and the human part of that decision," Barre said. "So that’s a lot of the type of information we’re asking from the public to help us with."
To comment on the proposed protection zone, click here.