New Washington directive aims to help endangered orcas

FILE--In this Jan. 18, 2014, file photo, an endangered female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle, Wash. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is set to establish an executive order Wednesday, March 14, 2018, calling for state actions to protect the unique population of endangered orcas that spend time in Puget Sound. The fish-eating whales have struggled due to lack of food, pollution and noise and disturbances from vessels. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

SEATTLE - With the number of endangered Puget Sound orcas at a 30-year low, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday signed an executive order directing state agencies to take immediate and longer-term steps to protect the struggling whales.

The fish-eating mammals, also known as killer whales, that spend time in Puget Sound have struggled for years because of lack of food, pollution, noise and disturbances from vessel traffic. There are now just 76, down from 98 in 1995.

Inslee said the orcas are in trouble and called on everyone in the state to do their part. His directive aims to make more salmon available to the whales, give them more space and quieter waters, make sure they have clean water to swim in and protect them from potential oil spills.

"The destiny of salmon and orca and we humans are intertwined," the governor said at a news conference at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Seattle. "As the orca go, so go we."

The executive order the Governor sight is intended to provide what the orcs need to survive, more salmon, less pollution and less noise from vessel traffic.

An orca task force forming now will meet for the first time next month and will come up with a final report with recommendations by November.

“Yes it does have teeth, but it doesn't have all the teeth that we need,” Inslee said after the signing.

The order lays out deadlines for several state departments to come up with strategies to preserve the orcas.

  • The State Department of Transportation must develop strategies for quieting state ferries in areas most important to the resident whale population.
  • The State Department of Ecology must create a plan in case of an oil spill where orcas roam and develop ways to prevent pollution from storm water runoff.
  • The Department of Fish and Wildlife must identify areas and way to increase the Chinook Salmon population.

Money has already been set aside to increase the number of hatchery fish.

“That’s a big thing,” said Nicolaus Lewis, a member of the Lummi Nation Tribal Council.

The tribes and the state co-manage the state’s fishery and must agree on the annual harvest each year.

The primary food source for orcas is Chinook Salmon, which are also highly sought after by commercial and recreational fishermen

“I like seeing the governor put that in his request, there is going to be some good coming from this," said Lewis.

There is also an emphasis to put orca health foremost in decisions by state leaders.

“I’m going to make sure that each decision I say, 'hey, is that going to contribute to their long term health and sustainability or is it going to take away?'” says Washington State Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who oversees 2.6 million acres of state land and shoreline.

The Governor is also asking the rest of the state to do the same.

“We have to be united, every industry, every community, everything we do in our personal lives, if we are going to save these orcas, we are going to have to change,” said Inslee.

"This is a wake-up call," said Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman, adding: "It's going to take some pain. We're going to have to make some sacrifices."

Many people have been sounding the alarm about the plight of the closely tracked southern resident killer whales for years. The federal government listed the orcas as endangered in 2005, and more recently identified them as among the most at risk of extinction in the near future.

A baby orca has not been born in the past few years. Half of the calves born during a celebrated baby boom several years ago have died. Female orcas are also having pregnancy problems linked to nutritional stress brought on by a low supply of chinook salmon, the whales' preferred food, a recent study found.

"We are not too late," said Barry Thom, west coast regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries. "From a biology perspective, there are still enough breeding animals, but we need to act soon."

Whale advocates welcomed the statewide initiative, saying it creates urgency and calls attention to the issue. But some also said it was long overdue.

"I think that everybody would have loved to have seen this five years ago," said Joe Gaydos, science director for the SeaDoc Society. "It is a crisis. The fact that we're responding is good."

The Legislature passed a supplemental budget Friday that includes $1.5 million for efforts such as increased marine patrols to see that boats keep their distance from the orcas and to boost hatchery production of salmon that the orcas prefer to eat by an additional five million.

Last year, the endangered orcas spent the fewest number of days in the central Salish Sea in four decades, mostly because there wasn't enough salmon to eat, according to the Center for Whale Research, which keeps the whale census for the federal government.

"I applaud anything that helps (the orcas) through the short term, but the long term is what we really have to look at — and that's the restoration of wild salmon stocks throughout Washington state," Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research, said Tuesday.

Balcomb and others say aggressive measures are needed and they have called for the removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River to restore those salmon runs.

J.T. Austin, the governor's senior policy adviser on natural resources issues, said Inslee thus far does not support removing those dams.

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