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Whale Watchers Must Keep Their Distance

WASHINGTON (CN) - Whale watchers must stay at least 200 yards away from killer whales in coastal waterways off Washington state, under new rules issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The move is to protect the Southern Resident population that "reside" around the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound in Washington state for long periods each year.

When the Southern Resident population was first listed as endangered, the agency identified boat traffic and the sound associated with vessels as a potential contributing factor in the whale's recent decline.

The restriction of vessel approaches is aimed mainly at commercial whale watching vessels, which the agency says intentionally place themselves in the path of traveling whales, altering the whales' course and increasing whale surfacing, which is popular with tourists.

The killer whale, or orca, is found in all oceans in both open seas and coastal waters. Orcas are toothed whales, related to sperm and pilot whales, and sit at the top of thee food chain. They are known to hunt in teams, and have the most varied diet of all whales.

The final rules do not include a seasonal "no-go" zone along the landward side of the San Juan Islands that was in earlier versions of the rules. The agency dropped that provision after receiving extensive public comments against the provision.

The rule is effective May 16, 2011.

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