NOAA Fisheries is considering whether the federal agency could do more to protect endangered Southern Resident orca whales from boat traffic and underwater noise and is asking for public input.

The federal agency announced Thursday a public comment period through Dec. 23. A public hearing is set for 5-8 p.m. Nov. 12 in Friday Harbor, at the Brickworks Event Center at 150 Nichols St.

NOAA in 2011 established rules prohibiting boats from getting within 200 yards of orcas and from getting in the whales’ paths.

Washington this year extended the limit in state waters to 300 yards per recommendations from an Orca Recovery Task Force Gov. Jay Inslee created.

The Southern Resident orcas were listed as endangered in 2005 under the Endangered Species Act.

The species is unique from other orcas in the West Coast region because they rely on salmon for food and they have historically spent several months of the year in the inland waters of the Salish Sea shared by Washington and British Columbia.

The Southern Resident orca population now, despite federal protection, continues to decline. The population most recently reached a low of 73 whales.

The orcas are challenged, according to NOAA and outside whale experts, by declining numbers of salmon for them to eat, boat traffic and underwater noise interfering with their ability to hunt, and pollution that makes its way up the food chain and accumulates in their bodies.

A recent lawsuit the Center for Biological Diversity filed against NOAA and effort by San Juan County locals to put a voter initiative on the ballot have targeted boat traffic as something that could be more tightly controlled.

The lawsuit asks NOAA to consider establishing an up to 12-square-mile whale protection zone prohibiting boats from the west side of San Juan Island April through September, when the whales are typically hunting fish in the area.

The San Juan initiative, struck down in court in August, wanted to require boats to stay 650 yards away from the orcas.

During the current public comment opportunity, NOAA Fisheries is asking for input on existing regulations, alternative management options, and scientific and economic information relevant to protecting the orcas from the impacts boat traffic including large shipping vessels.

At the Nov. 12 hearing, NOAA Fisheries will give a presentation summarizing existing regulations and alternatives that were considered during development of the regulations adopted in 2011.

Written comments may also be submitted by Dec. 23.

Email — OrcaRecovery.WCR@noaa.gov using the subject line “Comments on Protective Regulations for Killer Whales Scoping”

Mail — Attn: SRKW Vessel Regulation Revision, Seattle Branch Chief, Protected Resources Division, West Coast Region, National Marine Fisheries Service, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Building 1, Seattle, WA 98115.

More information is available online.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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