NOAA has proposed a doubling of the limit governing how close whalewatching boats may approach endangered orcas in the waters of Puget sound. Current voluntary guidelines ask boats to remain at least 100 yards from the endangered killer whales, while the proposed new mandatory limit would be 200 yards in most areas, with a half-mile wide “no go” zone in one area heavily used by orcas. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes that orcas depend on their sonar to navigate and find food – chiefly salmon. Underwater noise from vessel that are too close interferes with that sonar. “Vessel noise is going to decrease their ability to seek prey,” said Joe Gaydos, regional director of the SeaDoc Society in the San Juan Islands. “This is the right thing to do at the right time. … I think (the proposed rules) are tenable. I think people will support them. I think they are good for the whales,” Gaydos said. The Bellingham Times spoke toThe owner of one of the longest-operating whale watching outfits responded to the proposal with relative acceptance. “They’re not horrible, they’re not great,” said Drew Schmidt, owner of Victoria San Juan Cruises, “They’re not going to put us out of business.” While Schmidt said he believes whale watch operators are being unfairly singled out, noting that toxins and limited salmon are likely damaging whales more than boat noise, he also observed that whales are attracting a lot more attention today than in years past. Twenty years ago, Schmidt said, he was one of three whale cruise operators. Now there are about 30, with about 50 vessels. The rules include exceptions for working commercial fishery vessels, cargo ships in shipping lanes, residents going to shoreline homes, and research vessels. Public comments on the new rules are being accepted through October 27, with the hope that they will go into effect next year.
UPDATE: NOAA extended the comment period through Jan 15, and has announced that analysis of the comments will take too long for the new rules to go into effect for the summer 2010 season. Salmon fishermen have objected to the “no go” zone proposed for the west side of San Juan Island, and tour operators also are urging reconsideration of the 200 yard limit and no go zone.