Puget Sound's killer-whale population enjoys a tiny comeback but is still endangered, prompting proposed federal regulations to restrict recreational boating in the 2011 boating season.

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The first baby orca of the year has been born to J pod, boosting an endangered population of whales that needs every birth it can get.

The calf was spotted chugging alongside its mother in Puget Sound between Des Moines and the north end of Vashon Island on Sunday.

The birth brings to 88 the population of southern resident killer whales that frequents Puget Sound. That’s a bit of a comeback after a drop in population of 20 percent between 1996 and 2001. Orcas, a species of dolphin, were listed as endangered in November 2005.

“This has us back on an increasing trend, and that is good news,” said Lynne Barre, marine-mammal specialist for the National Marine Fisheries Service. However the baby’s mother, born in 1998, is quite young, raising concern for the survival of both the mother and her offspring. Orcas don’t usually come into their reproductive years until they are about 15.

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Births among the southern resident orcas are not unusual; last year there were five. But the youngsters often die, so they aren’t officially counted in the orca population until they are a year old.

The Marine Fisheries agency has proposed regulations to protect orcas, including new restrictions on whale watching. The rules would create a no-go zone for recreational-vessel traffic along the west side of San Juan Island, where the orcas spend much of their time feeding in the summer months.

The zone would extend one-half mile from the shore, from Mitchell Bay to Eagle Point, about a six-square-mile area, from May through September. Treaty-protected tribal fisheries would not be affected.

Whale-watch boats anywhere also would have to keep 200 yards away from the animals — double the limit in state law today — and would not be allowed to park in the path of oncoming orcas.

The regulations would be put in place for the 2011 boating season.

The regulations are intended to reduce vessel noise to avoid interfering with echolocation, a kind of sonar orcas deploy to find fish, Barre said. Orcas also are more active at the surface in the presence of boats, leaping and tail slapping, expending precious energy, she said.

The public-comment period on the proposed rules, which has already been extended once, expires Jan. 15.

The feds have been getting an earful from recreational boaters, whale-watch charter operators and conservationists who argue the real issue isn’t recreational boat traffic, but rebuilding chinook salmon populations in Puget Sound for orca to eat, and reducing pollution.

The orcas depend largely on a threatened fish — Puget Sound chinook — for survival. And orcas, long-lived mammals at the top of their food chain, are among the most toxic animals in the world, because pollutants concentrate in their blubber over the years.

Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, doubted vessel restrictions would make any difference in orca survival. He argued that echolocation clicks made by the orcas to find food occur in a different acoustic range, so vessel noise isn’t masking sounds the whales need to hear.

“I think it’s a cop-out,” Balcomb said. “It’s let these vessels take all the heat instead of the issue of salmon and habitat.” He would rather see a no-fishing rule than a no-boating one.

Recreational-boating interests are arguing for better enforcement of the 100-yard approach limit now in place, and a go-slow, rather than no-go zone.

“Let’s monitor the enforcement, and see how it’s working, and if we need to, toughen up,” said Frank Urabeck, a consultant representing sport fishermen and other recreational interests. “To us this wouldn’t make a difference to the whales, but it would kick an industry that’s already hurting.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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