Study: Distance restrictions on orcas haven't hurt tourism

SEATTLE — Restrictions limiting boats from getting too close to endangered southern resident killer whales have not harmed the whale-watching industry, according to a new federal study.

The study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicated that whale-watching tourism continues to grow even with the federal restrictions that require vessels to stay at least 200 yards (182 meters) from the orcas in Washington's Puget Sound, The Seattle Times reported .

Lack of food, environmental contamination and boat noise are the primary threats to the survival of Puget Sound orcas, according to the agency. The population of southern resident whales is down to 76 — the lowest in 30 years.

Noise from boats can disturb orcas, causing them to spend less time looking for food and more time traveling, according to researchers. The restrictions enacted in 2011 were aimed at reducing the stress placed on the orcas from noise.

Departing from more than 20 locations on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, about 400,000 people take commercial tour boats to watch whales each year, said Michael Harris, former executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

When boats enforcing the restrictions are on the water, the study found the federal rules to be more effective with fewer violations by recreational vessels.

Washington Sen. Kevin Ranker said he plans to introduce legislation to fund an enforcement boat and two state Department of Fish and Wildlife officers to be on the water five days a week during peak whale-watching season. The Democratic senator said to preserve whale watching, it requires preserving the whales.

"We have to protect the orca whale from our stupidity," Ranker said.

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Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com

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