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  • Protecting Puget Sound orcas

Protecting Puget Sound orcas

Like many of you, I have been closely following updates about our resident Puget Sound orcas and the great challenges they face. When the orca named J35, or Tahlequah, gave birth on July 24, her baby lived for only 30 minutes. Soon, the whole world was watching as she began carrying her dead calf – something she would do for more than two weeks.

One orca researcher has called this a “tour of grief,” and I know many of you right here in our community are interested in learning more about what the state is doing to help this iconic species survive. Below, you will find information about our current efforts and some ways you can help.

(Photo courtesy of NOAA)

Orca recovery at the state level

To address the rapidly decreasing orca population, Gov. Inslee created the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force earlier this year and instructed state agencies to outline immediate steps and long-term solutions for orca recovery and future survivability. This task force is directed to submit a final report with recommendations by Nov. 1.

The task force met on Tuesday and began putting together a package of recommendations. You can view the meeting materials and all potential actions by clicking this link.

Orca whales face three primary threats: contaminants, noise/disturbance, and prey availability (mostly Chinook salmon). We can, and must, take action to save this amazing population, but protecting them will require an assortment of solutions.

Taking action to protect orcas

Hatchery reform – In the 2018 supplemental budget, the Legislature provided the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) with $665,000 for hatchery improvements to increase Chinook salmon production.

Noise Pollution – WDFW and stakeholders are looking into establishing speed limits for small vessels near the orcas, transitioning to quieter state ferries, and creating a permit system for whale watching vessels. Additionally, WDFW intends to implement a package of outreach and education programs related to Whale-Wise guidelines at boat launches and marinas. Finally, WDFW will promote adherence to a voluntary “No-Go” Whale Protection Zone along the western side of San Juan Island for all recreational boats and commercial fishing vessels.

Orca whales are an icon in the Puget Sound and a vital piece of the ecosystem. They also maintain rich cultural ties, especially with our tribal communities. (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

Dam Removal – There are currently discussions about breaching the Lower Snake River dams to increase the Chinook salmon available for the orcas. In the short term, dams are increasing their spill in order to give salmon a higher survival rate.

Fish Negotiations – For the first time, the co-managers of Washington fishing rights (Washington state and the treaty tribes) are limiting fisheries in areas where orcas are known to feed.

Containments / Pollution – The 2018 supplemental budget provided $10 million to the Department of Ecology for grants for storm-water retrofit projects that will reduce pollutants in areas where orcas are regularly present.

Additionally, the Containments Workgroup of the Governor’s Task Force is looking at different chemicals that affect orcas and is developing plans to reduce their presence in Puget Sound.

Funding – On top of the funding for increased Chinook salmon and storm-water projects, the 2018 Supplemental budget included funding for a hatchery study and additional enforcement vessels to keep boats from disturbing the orcas.

What you can do to support the orcas:

  • Support farmers, businesses, and local food providers that invest in salmon-safe practices. Click here to learn about buying certified salmon safe products. Here is a link to learn more about the connection between salmon and Orcas.
  • Call your legislators and urge them to take action. Or, go one step further and track the progress of the task force and urge elected leaders and businesses to do more.
  • Take personal steps that have always been good for Puget Sound: be mindful of storm-water runoff and reduce or eliminate your use of single-use plastics and household toxins, which often end up in the water.

Learn more from organizations that focus on Orca whale protections:
Center for Whale Research
Orca Network
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
Puget Sound Partnership

I know the challenges we face may seem daunting, but I continue to believe that we can protect the species that have called the Pacific Northwest home for thousands of years. Through our individual and collective action, we have the opportunity to adapt our behavior and policies — so we all can thrive together. I am committed to this, and I hope that you are too.

Warm regards,