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Originally published Friday, April 8, 2011 at 7:52 PM

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Corrected version

New rules give orca whales more space

Whale watchers and other boaters will have to stay twice as far from Puget Sound's orca whales to avoid disturbing the endangered species, under new rules issued Friday by the federal government.

Seattle Times environment reporter

Whale watchers and other boaters will have to stay twice as far from Puget Sound's orca whales to avoid disturbing the endangered species, under new rules issued Friday by the federal government.

Boaters also won't be allowed to cut in front of a whale to intercept it, but the government dropped plans to ban vessels from the west side of San Juan Island during summer after public opposition, according to documents released by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The new rules take effect next month, and will apply to everything from yachts and whale-watching tours to kayaks and sailboats. Commercial fishing boats and container ships and tankers traveling in established fishing lanes will be exempt.

The population of Puget Sound's southern resident orcas has dropped more than half from historic highs and now numbers an estimated 86. The marine mammals were listed as federally endangered species in 2005, largely as a result of pollution, declines in chinook salmon, their key food source, and harassment by vessels.

The whales use sonar to hunt and travel and the sound of boats — even those without motors — can cause them to speed up travel and respiration, which burns more energy and inhibits feeding. The presence of boats also has been shown to increase how often the whales slap their tails on the water's surface.

Safe-boating guidelines now urge boaters to stay 100 yards from whales, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it a federal crime to "harass" them.

Several members of the public, including a trade group representing 700 marine businesses and fishermen, had objected to a proposed "no-go" zone near San Juan Island, a popular recreational fishing spot. They argued that the government should instead consider a speed limit or other ideas.

The National Marine Fisheries Service said it plans to gather more data and may propose alternative plans for that area later.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published April 9, 2011, was corrected April 13, 2011. A previous version of this story incorrectly referenced a proposed "no-go" zone west of Orcas Island that the federal government may consider adopting in the future. The "no-go" zone actually is west of San Juan Island.

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