SEATTLE - .New rules issued by the federal government to protect the endangered killer whales go into effect Monday. Among them is a requirement that all recreational vessels, including whale watching boats and kayaks, stay twice as far away as previously required -- 200 yards instead of 100 yards.
Commercial fishing boats, cargo ships traveling in established shipping lanes, and government and research vessels are exempt.
NOAA Fisheries says noise from boats can interfere with the sensitive sonar the whales use to navigate and find food. The agency's killer whale recovery plan, released in early 2008, calls for reducing how much vessels disturb the whales.
Other factors threatening the orcas are a shortage of chinook salmon and water pollution, the agency says.
The Puget Sound's southern resident orca population reached 97 whales in the 1990s before dropping to 79 in 2001. The population was listed as endangered in late 2005, and since then their numbers have improved slightly, rising to about 86 today.
The new rules also forbid vessels from intercepting a whale or waiting in its path.
However, NOAA did back off of one proposed regulation following a community outcry. That would have barred vessels entirely in a half-mile-wide zone along the west side of San Juan Island -- a popular fishing spot -- from May 1 through the end of September.
NOAA Fisheries said it may revisit that proposal later.