Washington Gov. Jay Inslee this week signed an
executive order outlining a strategy for southern resident orca and chinook salmon
In Puget Sound, the population of the
endangered southern resident killer whales has declined from 98 in 1995 to 76
today. The diets of southern resident orcas consist largely of chinook salmon
-- listed on federal and state endangered species lists.
“The problems faced by orcas and salmon are
human-caused, and we as Washingtonians have a duty to protect these species,”
Inslee said. “The impacts of letting these two species disappear would be felt
The order instructs state agencies to outline
immediate steps and long-term solutions to recover these species. The order
also assembles a task force to bring together state agencies, tribal leaders,
local governments, federal partners and other stakeholders to make
recommendations at the state, regional and federal levels. Given how far orcas
migrate, the task force is also directed to coordinate its efforts with leaders
in British Columbia, Oregon, California, Idaho and Alaska.
Thomas “Les” Purce, former president of The
Evergreen State College, and longtime civic activist Stephanie Solien, vice
president of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, will serve as
co-chairs of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force. Both say that many
of the actions needed to protect southern resident orcas and chinook will
ultimately mean a cleaner and healthier environment for humans as well.
“The orca dilemma is giving us a unique
opportunity,” Solien said. “Our goal is to recover the orca, recover the salmon
(and) improve the quality of life for everyone.”
Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman
reiterated the urgency of protecting the southern residents.
“The orca whales are vital to our culture and
spirituality as we are the first people on Puget Sound,” Forsman said. “They
act as sentinels, observing our behavior and its impacts on the health of our
waters. They bless us with their presence and depend on us to keep our sacred
pact with the Creator to care for this beautiful land.”
The task force will propose funding and
legislation to help the orcas. Its first report, due Nov. 1, will highlight
problems that southern resident orcas face, including a lack of prey, toxic
contaminants and vessel traffic and noise. The report will detail ongoing and
new actions that will address the major threats to these mammals.
The Washington Legislature this year approved
$115,000 for the development of a long-term orca recovery plan, $548,000 for
more enforcement of rules for vessels that travel near orcas and $837,000 for
hatchery operations that boost the stock of chinook salmon and other key prey
Starting in the spring and well into the
summer, southern resident killer whales feed and socialize in the Salish Sea
near the San Juan Islands, creating a tourist spectacle.
But it appears that the whales are finding
prey, chiefly chinook salmon, hard to come by. Scientists from the University
of Washington, in collaboration with others, found mother orcas able to
successfully deliver only a third of pregnancies, with failures attributed to malnutrition.
Southern resident orcas that are able to find
enough chinook to eat face other problems, including ingesting toxins, which
are picked up by salmon from environmental pollution. Those toxins accumulate
in the orcas’ fatty tissues and are eventually metabolized and shared by mother
orcas with their fragile newborn calves through gestation and lactation.
Southern Residents also struggle in waterways
littered with noisy vessel traffic from whale-watching and other boats. That
traffic interferes with the whales’ ability to hunt and socialize. A recent
study found southern resident orcas lose up to 97 percent of their ability to
communicate with each other because of noise pollution.
The executive order outlines several short-
and long-term actions related to unhealthy toxics, oil spill prevention and
vessel traffic, including exploring ways to quiet ferries and freight traffic.
The Port of Vancouver in British Columbia recently found successes in noise
reduction by asking vessels to voluntarily slow down in Haro Strait.
The order also aims to make prey more abundant
for the orcas by creating healthier chinook salmon runs.
Chinook need a healthy and dependable
environment to travel and reproduce, but are threatened by habitat loss, toxic
pollutants (particularly those in stormwater runoff), streams blocked by
development, predators and newly arriving invasive fish. The loss of habitat
and diminished water quality are key threats that led to the listing of chinook
salmon as a federally endangered species almost two decades ago.
Additional agency actions outlined in the
-- The Washington State Department of Fish and
Wildlife will identify high priorities for southern residents and adjust
programs if needed.
-- Fish and Wildlife and the state Parks and
Recreation Commission will increase enforcement and education concerning
vessels and chinook fisheries.
-- The Washington State Department of Ecology
will expand training programs that teach whale-watching vessels how to assist
in the event of an oil spill.
-- Ecology will prioritize funding for
stormwater mitigation projects that contribute to southern resident recovery.
-- Agencies will outline strategies for
improving fish runs and habitat necessary for the survival of southern resident
The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force
will deliver a second report to Inslee in October 2019 before dissolving.