NOAA sets new whale-protection rules in Puget Sound

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NOAA Fisheries recently issued new rules on vessel traffic aimed at protecting Southern Resident killer whales in Washington's Puget Sound.

The new rules prohibit vessels from approaching any killer whale closer than 200 yards and forbid vessels from intercepting a whale or positioning the vessel in its path. This doubles the current approach distance of 100 yards.

The rules go into effect in early May and apply to all types of boats, including powerboats, sailboats and kayaks in Washington's inland waters.

Exemptions to the rules for safety include vessels actively fishing commercially, cargo vessels traveling in established shipping lanes and government and research vessels, according to the agency.

Killer whales were added to the endangered species list in 2005.

The Southern Resident population peaked at 97 animals in the 1990s, but declined to 79 in 2001.

"It has seen slow growth since then and now stands at an estimated 86 killer whales, about half of which are sexually mature," according to NOAA Fisheries. "Scientists have identified the major threats facing the population as a shortage of its preferred prey of Chinook salmon, disturbance from vessels and water pollution."

The whales, which depend on their natural sonar to navigate and find food, can be affected by underwater noise from boats and disturbed by vessels, including non-motorized ones, that approach too close or block their path.

When the regulations were proposed in July 2009 they included a half-mile-wide no-go zone along the west side of San Juan Island, where vessels were prohibited from May 1 through the end of September.

The final regulations do not include the no-go zone because of extensive responses that were received during the public comment period. NOAA Fisheries will instead continue to gather information to consider the concept in future rule making, the agency said.