New rules keep boats, ships and kayaks 200 yards away from Puget Sound's killer whales

It was the length of one football field. Now it's two. 

That's how close any ship, boat or vessel — kayaks too — will be permitted to get to any of the Southern Resident killer whales under a new set of rules announced Friday by the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration. 

According to NOAA, the new federal rules go into effect in early May and apply to all types of boats, including motor boats, sail boats and kayaks, in the inland waters of Washington state. Vessels will be prohibited from approaching any killer whale closer than 200 yards and from intercepting an orca or positioning in its path.  

The Southern residents were added to the Endangered Species list in late 2005. The new rules aim at protecting these killer whales, which depend on a highly sophisticated natural sonar to navigate and find food. That sonar, according to NOAA, can be affected by underwater noise from boats and disturbed by vessels, including non-motorized ones. The agency's killer whale recovery plan, releases in early 2008, calls for actions to reduce disturbance from vessels. 

The population of Southern residents, which consist of J, K and L pods, three closely related clans, peaked at 97 animals in the 1990s, and then 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. 

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.

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

Excluded from the new rules is a seasonal half-mile wide no-go zone along the west side of San Juan Island, which, when first proposed in July 2009, drew heavy criticism.  

See the Fisheries Northwest Region Website for more information: 

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Visit us at or on Facebook at

— Scott Rasmussen


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