Agency proposes 200-yard limit near orcas

The federal agency in charge of protecting Puget Sound orcas proposed new rules Tuesday to prohibit vessels from coming closer than 200 yards of the endangered mammals.

NOAA Fisheries Service said the rules safeguard orcas, which depend on sophisticated sonar to navigate and forage for food. The whales can be affected by underwater noise from boats and vessels that approach too close or block their paths, the agency said.

The proposed rules would prohibit vessels from intercepting or parking in the path of a whale. It also sets up a half-mile “no-go” zone along the west side of San Juan Island where most vessels won’t be allowed from May 1 to Sept. 30.

“The idea here is to give these remarkable animals even more real, meaningful protection,” said Barry Thom, acting head of the agency’s Northwest office. “Without it, we would undercut the hard work we are all doing to recover the species by improving the sound’s water quality and recovering salmon, the killer whale’s primary food.”

Many U.S. and Canadian whale-watching operators and private boaters follow voluntary guidelines that recommend vessels give whales a 100-yard buffer.

But those guidelines “just haven’t been working,” said Brian Gorman, a spokesman with the fisheries service in Seattle. “Some pay attention to them, some people ignore them.”

The new mandatory rules would require vessels to give the orcas twice as much berth, or 200 yards. It also doubles the distance required under Washington state law.

The rules would not apply, however, to government and research vessels, commercial fishing vessels and cargo vessels traveling in established shipping lanes. If adopted, they would take effect in May at the earliest.

“We think it’s a good move to try to back off and give the whales some more space,” said Jenny Atkinson, executive director of The Whale Museum on San Juan Island.

Pollution and a lack of food, particularly salmon, are believed to be the whales’ biggest threats, but stress from whale-watching, commercial and recreational boats has also contributed to their decline.

The three southern residents pods – J, K and L – that frequent Western Washington’s inland marine waters were listed as endangered in 2005. The current population is at 85.

“Giving them a little more space so they have less competition can’t hurt and must help,” said Val Veirs, who operates a hydrophone network that monitors underwater noises in inland Washington waters. “There have been multiple studies on multiple species that show that boats nearby and boats making noise do change the animals’ behavior.”

While there are other serious issues harming the orcas, this is one that can dealt with quickly, he added.