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New boating laws aim to protect Southern Resident orcas

New rules are going into effect for boaters who encounter the Southern Resident killer whales. The rules are meant to reduce noise, so the orcas can find food and protect them from possible boat strikes.

SEATTLE — Governor Inslee signed several bills Wednesday aimed at protecting the Southern Resident killer whales. One of the new laws will change the rules for boaters that encounter the orcas.

"Having vessels get too close to the killer whales has been a problem for quite some time,” explained Sgt. Russ Mullins of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We worry about, in a worst-case scenario, prop strikes, which have not been known to happen, but we always worry about it. Also, the cumulative noise of vessels being in close proximity to the whales."

Mullins said wildlife officers are mostly focused on operators of recreational and fishing boats who may not be aware there are whales are around them. Boat noise hurts the orcas' ability to hunt because they use echolocation to find fish, and that echo is drowned out by boats.

Orca discussion: Can reducing boat noise help with orca recovery?

"Changes to the existing law are going to be the addition of a half nautical mile go-slow zone around the Southern Resident killer whales, as well as expanding the no-go perimeter around the whales from 200 to 300 yards on the sides, and 400 yards in front and behind the killer whales if they are traveling," Mullins said.

Also see | Debate continues whether whale watching hurts or harms Southern Resident orcas

Boaters could face up to a $1,025 fine for breaking the new rules, but Mullins said they prefer education. Education like what naturalist Bart Rulon does on Puget Sound Express whale watching boats.

"The cornerstone of orca whale research and other whale research is being able to identify individual animals," Rulon told a crowd.

While we were with him near Orcas Island, we saw transient killer whales hunting a sea lion. Rulon captured photos that show the orcas in action.

Transient killer whales eat marine mammals and have plenty of food, which is why boat noise is not as much of an issue for them, and why Rulon has seen a lot more of those orcas.

Also see | Salish Sea boat noise making it difficult for orcas to hunt

It's also why he's seen less of the Southern Residents whose diet consists mostly of Chinook salmon, which are also dwindling in numbers.

"It's all about the food with these orcas. That is what the (Southern) Residents need. They need more salmon and that's what these transients are benefiting from right now. It's amazing how much more we see the transients," Rulon said.

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