OLYMPIA - With six transient orcas feeding in Hood Canal and gray whales surfacing throughout Puget Sound, fish and wildlife officials are cautioning anglers and other boaters to give the animals a wide berth.
Despite their size and power, whales and other marine mammals are highly vulnerable to human disturbances, said Rocky Beach, wildlife diversity manager at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
"It's important that boaters resist the temptation to approach too close to these amazing animals," Beach said. "Human disturbances, including boat traffic, can interfere with their ability to feed, communicate with one another and care for their young."
Seldom has the potential for those problems been higher, given the high number boaters, orcas and gray whales sharing Puget Sound waters, Beach said.
During the past week, up to 10 gray whales were reported in Puget Sound, ranging from Whidbey Island to Budd Inlet near Olympia. In Hood Canal, the six transient orcas that entered Hood Canal in January have stayed longer than any transient group on record, feeding on seals in the 60-mile-long fjord.
Dave Sterritt, WDFW shellfish biologist, said those orcas could be in for a surprise if they stay through May 7, opening day of the Hood Canal recreational shrimp fishery.
"Last year, the season opener drew about 1,900 boats to Hood Canal," Sterritt said. "We're expecting a similar number - perhaps more - this year."
Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), noted that orcas, whales and other marine mammals are protected under the federal Marine Mammals Protection Act. Harassing or disturbing marine mammals can result in a fine of up to $10,000, he said.
Guidelines developed by NMFS advise boaters to take the following precautions around whales and other marine mammals.
- Approach areas of known or suspected marine mammal activity with extreme caution.
- Reduce speed to less than 7 knots when within 400 yards of the nearest whale or other marine mammal. Avoid abrupt course changes.
- Avoid approaching closer than 100 yards of any whale or other marine mammal.
- If a vessel is unexpectedly within 100 yards of a whale or other marine mammal, stop immediately and allow it to pass.
- Keep clear of a whale's path. Avoid positioning your vessel within the 400-yard area in front of the whales.
- Stay on the offshore side of whales when they are traveling close to shore.
- Limit viewing time to a recommended maximum of 30 minutes.