Endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales Could Get Wider Safety Zone

Written by on July 31, 2009 in Marine Life, Policy & Ocean Law
Killer whales observe oil tanker passing through their critical habitat  -  Scott Veirs, beamreach-org for Marine Photobank

Killer whales observe oil tanker passing through their critical habitat – Scott Veirs, beamreach.org/Marine Photobank

NOAA’s Fisheries Service is proposing new rules on vessel traffic aimed at further protecting Southern Resident killer whales in Washington’s Puget Sound. These large marine mammals were first listed as depleted in the Marine Mammal Protection Act and then added to the Endangered Species list in late 2005.

The proposed rules would prohibit vessels from approaching any killer whale closer than 200 yards and forbid vessels from intercepting or parking in the path of a whale.  In addition, the proposed regulations would set up a half-mile-wide no-go zone along the west side of San Juan Island 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 the agency’s Northwest regional office. “Without it, we would undercut the hard work we are all doing to recover the species by improving the sound’s water quality and recovering salmon, the killer whale’s primary food.”

The fisheries agency said there would be exemptions to the rules for some vessels, including those actively fishing commercially, cargo vessels travelling in established shipping lanes, and government and research vessels. The no-go zone would also have limited exceptions for land owners accessing private property adjacent to it.

Orca porpoising  -  Credit: Minette Layne for Wikipedia

Orca porpoising – Credit: Minette Layne for Wikipedia

One of the characteristics of the toothed whales is their social behavior. Resident killer whales live in complex and cohesive family groups, with lifelong family bonds based on matrilines. These are highly stable, with individuals only parting from the group for just a few hours at a time. Closely related groups of matrilines form loose aggregations called pods. These pods may split apart for days or even weeks. Killer whales within a pod do not interbreed; mating occurs only between members of different pods. They are known to visit the same areas consistently.

If adopted, the earliest this new rule would take effect would be May 2010.

Killer whale spy-hopping in the ice  -  NOAA's Ark, Animal Collection

Killer whale spy-hopping in the ice – NOAA’s Ark, Animal Collection

Find more information on killer whales at:
NOAA’s Northwest Regional Offices’ Marine Mammal site
American Cetacean Society’s website

Copyright ©  2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Celia is Director of Business Operations for OceanLines LLC and is a frequent contributor to both OceanLines and Marine Science Today. She is a certified diver and her favorite topic is marine biology, especially stories about whales. .


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  1. Bryan says:

    The debate about distance from Orcas extends to the scientific community. In this documentary ( http://www.explore.org/explore/pacificnorthwest/films/100 ), Dr. Paul Spong doesn’t believe that people should interact with Orcas in boats at all, while Kenneth Balcomb, who observes the Southern Residents, doesn’t entirely agree.

    I’m curious to know what Orca researchers advised the NOAA in this decision.

  2. Celia says:

    Thank you, Bryan, for your comment and for sharing this great video with us.

    I will get the answer to your question as soon as possible, but since it is already weekend on the U.S. East Coast, it might take until Monday some time.

    Please check back, we’ll post the responses we get.