Time is ticking for the National Marine Fisheries Service to better protect our Puget Sound Orcas from the impacts of vessel traffic.

The Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing regulations that would make all boats, including whale watchers, from staying twice as far from the whales than current law allows.  The proposal would also block off a ½ mile “no-go zone” on the west side of San Juan Island during whale watch season.

“Orcas are magnificent beasts.  We're the ones who are going to cause their demise as a species or flourish and health," says Bill Ruckelshaus, former director of the EPA.

For decades, the founding director of the Environmental Protection Agency has been at the forefront of the struggle between conservation and exploitation of our natural resources.  Ruckelshaus now lives in Seattle and protecting the Puget Sound has become his passion.

"It's just not conscionable to allow a beautiful area that we all share to become so degraded that it can't support some of these iconic species like salmon and orcas," says Ruckelshaus.

Our three pods of Southern Resident Killer Whales are threatened on three fronts: pollution, a dwindling food supply and the impact of boat noise.  Research shows engine noise can interfere with the whales' ability to find food.

"I'm very concerned the rules are going to change," says whale watch tour operator Shane Aggergaard.

He and other tour operators are waiting for the decision from Washington DC, but it's no secret they're skeptical of research that shows their business is hurting the whales.

"The long term studies I trust.  The short term studies and modeling and guessing I have a hard time trusting that science especially when it affects the future of whale watching," says Aggergaard.

Ruckelshaus, who ran the EPA under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, isn't surprised.

"Anytime you have an endangered species you always have somebody who is adversely impacted by the efforts to save the species and they are very skeptical about the science that shows what they're doing is causing any harm.  The whale watch boats are equally dependent on the health of the orcas as are people who are concerned about them as a species.  They don't want to see the orcas go away because their business goes away if that happens.  They should be the first ones to back away and not complain about it," says Ruckelshaus.

Another goal for the former EPA director is restoring wild Chinook salmon to Puget Sound.  A decade ago, President Clinton chose him to implement the Pacific Salmon Treaty and former Governor Gary Locke made Ruckelshaus Chairman of the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board.

"If we're over-harvesting the Chinook for the Orcas to survive then we've got to face up to that fact," says Ruckelshaus.

Joseph Bogaard with “Save our Wild Salmon” says it’s critical for our elected leaders to act now to restore the Orcas food supply.

"The fate of the orca and salmon are tied.  We can't solve these problems separately.  Orca and salmon are emblematic creatures of the Northwest.  They're icons.  They have ecological value that can't be replaced," says Bogaard.

While it may take decades to restore the salmon population, the issue of boat noise is on the table right now, and Ruckelshaus says it's critical to take whatever action we can to save the Orcas. 

“We're the ones who are going to cause their demise as a species or flourish and health and so it's up to us to apply our intelligence in such a way that the species have a chance of surviving.  To me it's unconscionable that we wouldn't do that."

The Office of Management and Budget in Washington DC is expected to make a decision by the end of April.  If approved, the National Marine Fisheries Service has to give boaters a 30 day notification period before the regulations become law.