New NOAA Fisheries rule to keeps boats farther away from orcas

By Leah Leach
Peninsula Daily News

Whale-watchers and other boaters will have to stay twice as far away from orcas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound once a federal rule comes into effect, expected in early May.

The final rule released by NOAA Fisheries on Friday doubles the current approach distance of 100 yards approved by the state Legislature in March 2008 to protect the animals from environmental disturbances.

“I think [the new regulations] are great,” said Pete Hanke, owner of Puget Sound Express of Port Townsend, the only commercial whale-watching operation on the North Olympic Peninsula.

“This is our 26th year doing whale-watching, and I don’t see a problem” with giving orcas more space, Hanke said.

The rule will apply to everything from yachts and whale-watching tours to kayaks and sailboats.

It exempts commercial fishing and tribal boats actively involved in fishing, as well as container ships and tankers traveling in established shipping lanes and vessels with scientific research permits to study orcas.

The final rule from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also forbids boats and ships from parking in an orca’s path, limiting that distance to 400 yards.

Experience the same

The regulations won’t change the experience of watching orcas on his boats, Hanke said, since he is keeping the specified distances from the animals.

“But I’m a big-boat operator,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s like for a small boat.”

Hanke said he was glad to see NOAA drop its original proposal of setting a half-mile “no-go” zone prohibiting vessels along the west side of the San Juan Islands from May 1 through Sept. 30 — not because he travels that closely to the island but because he doubted it could be enforced.

Public comments about the measure, proposed in 2009, expressed concerns about the economic impacts of such a closure to commercial and recreational fishing, elimination of kayaking opportunities and safety.

Instead of including the measure in the present rule, NOAA Fisheries will instead continue to gather information to consider it in future rulemaking.

The rule will go into effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. The date of publication is not known, NOAA said on its website, www.nwr.noaa.gov.

Threats to orcas

The rule is intended to protect orcas from one of three recognized threats to their existence, NOAA said.

Major threats facing the population are disturbance from vessels — especially noise — a shortage of its preferred prey of Chinook salmon and water pollution, scientists have said.

The agency’s killer whale recovery plan, released in early 2008, calls for actions to reduce disturbance from vessels.

Underwater noise from boats can affect orcas, which depend on natural sonar to navigate and find food, and even nonmotorized boats that approach too close or block their paths can disturb the animals, NOAA said.

While agreeing with limits on boats, Hanke also urged action to clean up the waters orcas live in.

“Pushing boats away from the whales won’t improve their habitat in terms of the pollution issue,” he said.

“And that’s what’s really going to affect these animals down the road.”

For more information on the rule, visit http://tinyurl.com/3mdnnyd.

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Managing Editor/News Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3531 or leah.leach@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 09. 2011 11:02PM
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