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Feds seek to double orca whale protection zone

Stricter new whale-watching guidelines proposed Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are bound to be controversial.

"They're pretty damaging to the whale-watching companies," said Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Whidbey-based Orca Network, Tuesday morning.

Taking tourists out to watch orca whales (killer whales is the term used by NOAA) is big business in the San Juan Islands. At present, local and state statutes preclude boats from coming within 100 yards of orcas.

The new federal rules would extend the limit to 200 yards and forbid vessels from intercepting or parking in the path of a whale. Also, the regulations would set up a half-mile wide "no go" zone along the west side of San Juan Island during whale-watching season, from May 1 through the end of September, where generally no vessels would be allowed.

"The idea here is to give these remarkable animals even more real, meaningful protection," said Barry Thom, acting head of NOAA's Northwest regional office, in a news release. "Without it, we would undercut the hard work we are doing to recover the species by improving the sound's water quality and recovering salmon, the killer whale's primary food."

The population of the Souther Resident orca whales the proposed rules are meant to protect peaked at 97 animals in the 1990s and then declined to 79 in 2001. It currently stands at 85 animals, according to NOAA.

Garrett and Orca Network co-founder Susan Berta have been working for years to better protect orcas, which are commonly viewed from the shores of Whidbey Island. But he's not adamantly supporting the new NOAA rules.

"You can't see a whale very well from 200 yards," Garrett said, predicting opposition from the whale-watching companies. "It's a trade-off."

Garrett would prefer to see more emphasis given to protecting the whales' food source, which is 80 percent chinook salmon.

"That's our main focus," he said. He supports what seems to be renewed interest in removing dams from the Snake River, for example. He would also like to see fewer chinook salmon caught by humans.

"That's where it gets a lot more complicated and contentious," he said. "There are more vested interests."

If NOAA's proposed rules are adopted, they could take effect in May 2010. Public hearings will be held Sept. 30 in Seattle and Oct. 5 in Friday Harbor. The public comment period closes Oct. 27.

For the proposed regulation and comments on the Web, visit www.nwr.noaa.gov/Marine-Mammals/Whales-Dolphins-Porpoise/Killer-Whales/ESA-Status/Orca-Vessel-Regs.cfm.

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