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Washington House, Senate pass bills limiting boat distance from orcas

A measure putting new restrictions on how close vessels can get to Southern Resident orcas is heading to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.

The Senate and House have each passed measures seeking to give the state's endangered orca population some space.

The House and Senate on Thursday passed their own versions of a bill to reduce vessel noise and disturbance by increasing the distance boats must stay from the southern resident orcas. 

Current law requires boats to not approach and to disengage engines within 200 yards from orcas. Both bills increase that distance to 300 yards, add a prohibition on being positioned within 400 yards behind an orca and add a speed limit of 7 knots when within one-half of a nautical mile of an orca.

Related: Scientists identify another possible threat to Southern Resident orcas

“We know that slowing down boats and providing a large zone where boats are absent are necessary to quiet the waters near orcas and preserve their health,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. “This is another key step to protect our vulnerable orca population.”

The bills also implement a commercial whale watching license and fees.

The Senate bill passed on a 46-3 vote and the House bill passed on a 78-20 vote. Either of the bills needs to pass through the other chamber before heading to Gov. Jay Inslee's desk.

Related: Mysterious new killer whale found off Chilean coast

“I hope this measure will begin to reduce the noise and disturbance that makes it difficult for southern resident orcas to navigate, communicate with one another, and hunt for prey,” Rolfes said.