Orca tour-boat restrictions bills approved in Washington legislature

    FILE - In this Aug. 7, 2018, file photo, Southern Resident killer whale J50 and her mother, J16, swim off the west coast of Vancouver Island near Port Renfrew, B.C. Teams searched Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, for the sick, critically endangered orca in the waters of Washington state and Canada, but a scientist who closely tracks the population in the Pacific Northwest said he believes the whale, known as J50, has died. (Brian Gisborne/Fisheries and Oceans Canada via AP, file)

    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.

    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.

    “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 aims to reduce boat noise and disturbances for the southern resident orcas.

    That measure comes as U.S. officials consider whether new fishing restrictions are necessary to help prevent the extinction of the endangered orcas.

    The Seattle Times reports that new evidence of the fish the whales depend on and the risk posed to orcas by depleted prey has caused the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to write a letter of guidance to the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

    The letter says the NOAA is examining whether new restrictions are needed — particularly on fisheries in the Lower Columbia and Sacramento River and on fall-run chinook salmon in the Klamath River.

    The NOAA in 2009 concluded fisheries did not jeopardize the survival and recovery of orcas.

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