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Feds issue new rules to protect Puget Sound orcas

Posted: April 9, 2011 - 9:01pm

SEATTLE — Whale watchers in Puget Sound are going to have to look a little harder to see the region’s orcas.

The federal government issued new rules Friday to protect the endangered killer whales. Among them is a requirement that all recreational vessels, including whale watching boats and kayaks, stay twice as far away as previously required — 200 yards instead of 100 yards.

Commercial fishing boats, cargo ships traveling in established shipping lanes, and government and research vessels are exempt.

NOAA Fisheries says noise from boats can interfere with the sensitive sonar the whales use to navigate and find food. The agency’s killer whale recovery plan, released in early 2008, calls for reducing how much vessels disturb the whales.

Other factors threatening the orcas are a shortage of chinook salmon and water pollution, the agency says.

The Puget Sound’s southern resident orca population reached 97 whales in the 1990s before dropping to 79 in 2001. The population was listed as endangered in late 2005, and since then their numbers have improved slightly, rising to about 86 today.

The new rules take effect early next month.

Whalewatch operators are unenthused. Jim Maya, who runs Maya’s Westside Charters from San Juan Island, said he and some others already parallel the whales very slowly at 150 yards to be safe and cut their engines when the whales feed. The new rules will do nothing about cargo ships, which are far louder, he said.

He hopes the new regulations don’t hurt business.

“I think that good viewing can be maintained at 200 yards, but it’s not going to be the same as 100 yards,” he said Saturday. “It’s the difference between going to the zoo and looking at a tiger up close and being back 200 yards.

“It’s an absolute thrill for a wildlife lover to see these animals up close in the wild. I’ve had people complain in the past because I kept them at 100 or 150 yards.”

The new rules also forbid vessels from intercepting a whale or waiting in its path.

However, NOAA did back off of one proposed regulation following a community outcry. That would have barred vessels entirely in a half-mile-wide zone along the west side of San Juan Island — a popular fishing spot — from May 1 through the end of September.

NOAA Fisheries said it may revisit that proposal later.

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