SEATTLE (AP) — Washington officials are requiring commercial whale-watching vessels to keep extra far from three pregnant orcas, in hopes of giving the endangered animals more space to feed and socialize.
Following reports that the three whales in J pod, one of the groups that make up the Southern Resident killer whale population, are pregnant, the Department of Fish and Wildlife adopted an emergency rule Monday requiring commercial whale-watching boats to keep at least half a nautical mile away from them or any group of whales containing them.
The orcas have a high rate of failed pregnancies, and officials are trying to give the whales the best chance of reproducing successfully. Boat noise can interfere with the echolocation they use to hunt, researchers say.
The state last winter adopted new boating restrictions to protect the orcas. They banned commercial whale-watching along the west side of San Juan Island, an important feeding area, except for a 100-yard wide corridor next to the shore for kayak tours.
Under the restrictions, motorized commercial vessels can only come within half a nautical mile of the whales during two daily periods of two hours each — and each period is limited to three tour boats.
Designating whales as vulnerable, as the state did on Monday, triggers further restrictions.
Under Washington's “Be Whale Wise” law, vessels are required to stay 300 yards (274 meters) away from the whales and at least 400 yards (365 meters) from their path. Watercraft must also reduce their speed when they're near the whales.
“Now that we’ve learned of multiple pregnancies among the Southern Residents and the impact that boats can have on new mothers, we really need everyone to follow Be Whale Wise regulations in support of these endangered whales’ survival,” Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said in a news release.