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Mooring Buoys - Why the Delay?

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

For many years, the County, Native American Tribes and State agencies preferred and approved the permits for the installation of mooring buoys versus docks or anchorage. The buoys have much less impact to eel grass and other marine plants versus anchorage. This premise cannot be argued; if you have ever pulled your anchor in our waters, you know that it comes up regularly with seaweed, mud and eel grass.

In the past, to process a registered mooring buoy was straight forward with numerous regulations that needed to be complied with. The approvals from the Department of Resources (DNR), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), the Native American Tribes and San Juan County were required. The process took about 1 year to complete, and the cost was close to $8,000.

The Native American Tribes in the State of Washington have always been involved in the permit issuance process, same as for docks and other waterway permits.

Generally, the mooring buoy installation regulations include the following:

· The proposed location must be inspected/certified by a diver during the months of June-September to determine if any eel grass or other sensitive vegetation will be harmed.

· The location must offer at least 11.5 feet in depth, and it is recommended that it be in sheltered waters.

· The location may not interfere with any existing buoys or docks within a 118 feet Radius.

· The location may not be in a Channel and interfere with boat navigation.

· The buoys are rated for boats under 65 feet in length only.

· The cost to install a mooring buoy was $8000 however, that amount is now undetermined as none have been approved recently.

· The registration number must be present on the buoy itself. Plastic stick-on numbers do not stay attached, so your best application is paint or plastic welding.

For existing buoys, every year you should conduct an annual inspection on your buoy to ensure the chain, shackles and/or lines are in good condition. Replacement hardware is needed about every 3-5 years depending on the location.

It is very important to maintain the condition of the buoy, lines, chains and hardware. I can attest to how difficult it is to locate your anchor block or embedded anchor when your buoy is broken off during the winter storms, even with the longitude and latitude.

Towards the end of 2021, some of the Native American Tribes initiated objections to the mooring buoy permit applications.

Per the rejection letter for one of the permit applicants, the Native American Tribe requested that ACE deny the permit application due to impact to the Tribe’s treaty-reserved fishing rights. Docks and buoys could interfere with their nets and the setting of their shrimp and crab pots. Further, vessel traffic from the buoys may interfere with the gear causing damage or equipment loss. The fishermen would have to avoid the location where the buoy is proposed as it would create in-water navigational and physical obstacle. Most of the permit objections include all these same reasons.

One of the service providers was told by ACE that the applicants might consider going directly to the Native American Tribe that is making the objection and negotiate a “side deal”. Ace has supported “side deals” in the past for applications that have already received their formal objection. Perhaps due to the proposed location of the buoy by the applicant, it will not interfere with shrimping and crabbing for that area Native American Tribe.

Negotiation with the Native American Tribes is a better alternative than suing the ACE. Anyone that has taken on that has found it too long, too expensive, and political and not a fruitful endeavor.

As this issue is going to be difficult to resolve, there is no solution at this point, only time will tell.

Per the several local service providers, we currently have a back log of applications pending approval of more than 100 mooring buoys in San Juan County. Many of the applications have been fully processed and compliant to all the standard regulations but are being delayed or rejected. Many of these are still being processed by DNR and have not gone to ACE yet. Further, DNR has indicated staff shortages and COVID issues, so they are behind on processing as well. Both agencies, DNR and ACE, take about 1 year each for their part of the application process. It is now at least a 2-3 year process, if we start moving forward again.

These existing applications all contain biological reports that have expiration dates and will need to be reprocessed at the applicant’s expense once this log jam is figured out.

Further, ACE is stonewalling the various industry service providers and individual applicants as they will not override the Native American Tribes request to deny the buoy permitting and installations.

I read recently that even the Port of Friday Harbor has 33 port projects for improvements at their marine locations being objected to by the Native American Tribes. Further, our Council agreed to open conversations with local tribes as part of the preparation for permitting. (San Juan Islander January 11, 2023)

As an agent, I inform my clients of the current status of mooring buoy applications and the timetable and expense. If it is an existing buoy, at closing, we have the seller assign their rights to the registered mooring buoy via the 15-page form provided by DNR.

Further, when applicable, I write into the purchase contract that buyer acknowledges that if the buoy is unregistered that there can be future action by DNR. In the past, DNR would come into the bays and tag the unregistered mooring buoys to demand compliance of the owner, but staff shortages have curbed that enforcement activity.

Unregistered buoys have always been present in the islands. About 15 years ago DNR created an amnesty program, and the owners of the unregistered buoys were able to file their location with the State. Having buoys registered with the State is a good practice as it allows the State to ensure compliance with installation regulations and monitor the areas and make sure any requests for new buoys take into consideration the location of other nearby buoys.

A valid concern about the delays is that boat owners will become too frustrated with the process and elect to install unregistered and non-compliant buoys. This would be very unfortunate as those buoys would not have the proper location inspections to ensure that their installation would not harm the eel grass and other sensitive marine vegetation. Creating a route for these permits is part of the solution and will be the insurance to keep everyone “playing by the rules”.

We all live in the islands to enjoy the environment and all types of boating activity for sight-seeing, fishing, crabbing, diving and shrimping is all part of that enjoyment. We all want to have the least amount of impact to these waters and mooring buoys versus anchorage is truly the best application. It biologically makes sense. Unless we have sweeping regulation changes, we may always have transient moorage on anchor in the bays during the summer. However, allowing the local boat owners to utilize a mooring buoy makes sense.

Moorage slips at the Port, Roche, Snug and the other islands, all have long wait lists. Boating is very popular in the islands and accommodating sheltered moorage for a boat is less impactful than expecting owners to trailer their boat after each use or use an anchor. It is unlikely that the vessel traffic will decrease in our County as our population is increasing. This stalemate needs to be resolved even if the response is no more mooring buoys. At least we will have our answer.

As with all my articles, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own. And these opinions are based on my personal experience, observations, and from interviewing and reviewing both public and non-public information sources. Anyone interested in obtaining a buoy permit should seek out further information from official state sources.

Written by:

Merri Ann Simonson

Colwell Banker San Juan Islands Inc.



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