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Finding balance for salmon, people and whales

Killer WhalesKiller Whales.

Summer is here, and sightings of majestic Southern Resident killer whales are on the rise in Puget Sound. Popular with tourists, whale-watchers, and the public at large, Southern Residents are the focus of a concerted regional movement to protect these whales and their habitat. Placed on the Federal Endangered Species list in 2005, three primary threats were identified as potential causes of the whales’ decline: a shortage of salmon, their preferred prey, disturbance from vessels, and water pollution.

Tackling one of these issues, in April 2011, NOAA Fisheries adopted new vessel regulations to safeguard the whales.  The new rules prohibit vessels from approaching within 200 yards of any killer whale—doubling the distance from the previous 100-yard approach guideline—and also require vessels to stay out of the path of oncoming whales out to 400 yards. The rules went into effect on May 16 and apply to all boats, motorized or not. 

The whales use sound to communicate with each other and depend on their highly sophisticated natural sonar (echolocation) to navigate and find food. Scientific studies have documented changes in whale behavior and an increased risk of vessel strikes when vessels get too close or park in their path. Vessels, motorized or not, can disturb the whales’ swimming, breathing, and feeding.

Development of the regulations brought together diverse groups of stakeholders. The livelihoods of whale-watch operators and the broader whale watching industry depend on their ability to provide an engaging experience to their passengers; kayakers, sailors, and recreational boaters seek to enjoy their sport in the Sound’s waters while encountering a whale or two; and many environmentalists seek to protect Southern Residents for generations to come.
According to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, “What keeps us going is our belief that sustainable tourism, based on best practices guidelines while educating the public about environmental issues, is the very essence of responsible capitalism.”

NOAA Fisheries is working with our partners to implement the new rules through boater education, enforcement, and effectiveness monitoring. The regulations are just one part of a comprehensive recovery program to address all threats to the whales.

Recovery of Southern Residents is a long-term effort that will require cooperation and coordination of coastal communities throughout the whales’ range from California to British Columbia. NOAA Fisheries and our partners have united around a shared goal:  to protect and recover Southern Residents. The new vessel regulations are an important step in the right direction.

For more information about this story, please contact Megan Morlock at

Photos: D. Noren, NOAA

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