National Marine Fisheries Service proposes wider berth, safety zone for endangered killer whales

The National Marine Fisheries Service is proposing new rules on vessel traffic aimed at further protecting Southern Resident killer whales.

The resident killer whale pods, the subject of intense curiosity — from kayakers as well as tourists crowding the decks of commercial whale-watching vessels — were added to the endangered species list in late 2005. Their population is 85, according to the Center for Whale Research.

The proposed rules would prohibit vessels from approaching any killer whale closer than 200 yards and forbid vessels from intercepting or parking in the path of a whale. In addition, the proposed regulations would set up a half-mile-wide no-go zone along the west side of San Juan Island from May 1 through the end of September where generally no vessels would be allowed.

“The idea here is to give these remarkable animals even more real, meaningful protection,” NMFS acting regional director Barry Thom said in a press release. “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.”

The fisheries agency said there would be exemptions to the rules for some vessels, including those actively fishing commercially, cargo vessels traveling in established shipping lanes, and government and research vessels. The no-go zone would also have limited exceptions for land owners accessing private property adjacent to it.

While Southern Resident whales are also threatened by degraded water quality in the sound and lack of prey, primarily salmon, biologists have known for years that vessel traffic may be tied to their low numbers, according to NMFS.

The whales, which depend on their highly sophisticated sonar to navigate and find food, can be affected by underwater noise from boats and disturbed by vessels that approach too close or block their paths, according to NMFS.

The population peaked at 97 animals in the 1990s and then declined to 79 in 2001. It currently stands at 85 whales. The agency’s recovery plan, released in early 2008, calls for actions to reduce disturbance from vessels.

If adopted, the earliest the rule would take effect would be May 2010. The agency said it will hold public meetings Sept. 30 in Seattle and Oct. 5 in Friday Harbor for people to learn more about the proposed rules. The public comment period on them closes Oct. 27.

Some whale advocates declined to comment until they had time to thoroughly review the rules. But Kari Koski of The Whale Museum’s Soundwatch boater education program said she is “quite pleased with the proposal.”

The Whale Museum, along with other local organizations like the Friends of the San Juans, submitted comments to NMFS regarding these regulations in 2007. Koski said that many of Soundwatch’s recommendations were implemented into the proposed guidelines.

Shane Aggergaard, president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, advised that the proposed regulations are a long way from being law.

“We haven’t had time to look at the reasoning behind the proposed regulations,” he said. “There’s a three-month public comment period, so the proposed regulations are far from being instated as federal law.”

On the Web: Proposed regulations and comments