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New rules aim to protect Puget Sound orcas from getting harassed by humans

A recent incident near Fox Island is just the latest in a trend of humans interacting with marine wildlife in Washington state, sometimes with fatal results.

RICHMOND BEACH, Shoreline — After boaters harassed a pod of transient orcas near Fox Island last weekend for selfies and curiosity, state and local wildlife agencies held a press conference to remind people to stay away from the whales and other protected species.

The agencies, including the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as non-governmental organizations, this week spoke about new rules to protect resident orca populations in Washington state. 

Those new rules require boaters to stay at least 300 yards away from endangered resident killer whale pods from the sides, and at least four hundred yards ahead or behind an orca pod that’s moving. 

Boats need to travel at seven knots or less within a half-mile of a pod.

Rules are less stringent for encounters with transient orca pods, which move up and down the west coast, but authorities say since most people can’t tell the difference between resident and transient orcas, it's better to take the more conservative approach.

They also advise reporting the incidents of harassment of whales on the website https://www.bewhalewise.org/. The website also has a list of laws regarding marine mammals.

There seem to be more people on local beaches and in boats, said Alan Myers of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the harassment of seals and sea lion pups around Port Townsend has gotten a lot worse, the officials said.

“We’ve had more calls about people interacting with stranded seal pups in the past three weeks, the past month, than we’ve had in the past two years combined,” said Betsy Carlson with the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

She says people see the pups alone on the beach and think they’ve been abandoned, not realizing their mothers are out feeding and will return for them.

In some cases, pups have been picked up and put into water-filled coolers, only to end up dead or having to be euthanized.  

What are the rules? They say if you’re going to observe seals and sea lions, keep 100 yards away.

The issue seems to boil down to if you approach them or if they approach you.

What do you do if they haul out onto a dock at a marina where you may be walking? 

Authorities advise boat owners to leave the animals alone and let it be up to harbor masters and marina owners, who have been given guidance on how to safely move the animals. 

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