State urges boaters to watch out for whales

WhaleFin

With summer approaching, the state Department of Fish & Wildlife is reminding boaters to keep their distance from killer whales and other marine mammals.

State and federal law requires boaters to stay at least 200 yards from southern resident killer whales and to avoid positioning their vessels in the path of oncoming whales. Boaters who inadvertently find themselves in violation of the 200 yard proximity are required to stop immediately and allow the whale to pass.

These regulations apply to a variety of small watercraft, including tour boats, private powerboats, commercial fishing boats, sailboats, kayaks, canoes and personal watercraft.

Fish & Wildlife is preparing for a busy boating and whale-watching season, said Mike Cenci, Fish & Wildlife’s deputy police chief.

“Boaters have a responsibility to keep their distance from these animals,” he said in a statement. “To make sure this happens, the department is increasing the number of enforcement patrols dedicated to monitoring boaters and their interactions with whales.”

Fish & Wildlife issued 13 citations and dozens of warnings to recreational boaters last year.

Federal law also includes broad restrictions against disturbing or harassing any marine mammal. Violating the state law can result in a fine of up to $1,025. The maximum fine under federal law is $10,000.

Human disturbances, including boat traffic, may interfere with the whales’ ability to feed, communicate with one another and care for their young, said Fish & Wildlife biologist Gary Wiles.

The southern resident killer whale population has declined to 80 whales, down from 98 in 1995. The population is classified as “endangered” by he state and federal government.

These whales, which travel the waters of northern Puget Sound and the outer coast, account for the majority of killer whales found in Washington from early spring to late fall, Wiles said.

Major threats to their survival include the declining abundance of chinook salmon, exposure to pollutants and disruptions from vessels.

Under state law, it is unlawful to:

- Approach or cause a vessel to approach within 200 yards of a killer whale.

– Position a vessel in the path of an killer whale at any point located within 400 yards of the whale. This includes intercepting a killer whale by positioning a vessel so that the prevailing wind or water current carries the vessel within 400 yards of the whale.

– Fail to disengage the transmission of a vessel that is within 200 yards of an whale.

– Feed a killer whale.

Fish & Wildlife partners with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to enforce these laws.

To report violators, contact NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement at (800) 853-1964 or Fish & Wildlife police at (360) 902-2936.

Additional information can be found here.

Photo: Boaters gather around a killer whale in Dyes Inlet near Tracyton in 2007. By Kelley Balcomb-Bartok/For the Kitsap Sun