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Orca Recovery Task Force Recommendations Include Considering Removal Of Lower Snake Dams
Posted on Tuesday, November 20, 2018 (PST)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force delivered last week its final list of ways to help the whales in Puget Sound recover and one of those recommendations is to consider the benefits to chinook salmon of removing lower Snake River dams.

 

The report and recommendations, released Nov. 16, lists 36 recommendations that the Task Force believes will be needed to add 10 more orcas in the next 10 years to the depleted southern residents, whose numbers are now at a 30-year low.

 

There are a number of causes for the orca decline, but broadly the decline has been due to vessel traffic, contaminants and lack of prey. The prey favored by the orcas is chinook salmon, which makes up 80 percent of the whales’ diet. The problem is that the number of chinook available in the inland seas from southeast Alaska to southern Puget Sound and along the west coast to the Columbia River has also been in decline.

 

The 148-page report says that the southern resident diet is nearly entirely composed of salmon, with an adult male orca needing about 325 pounds of chinook salmon every day.

 

To help rebuild chinook runs of salmon that would be available to orcas, the Task Force recommends establishing a stakeholder process to consider the removal of four dams on the lower Snake River– Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams.

 

Another Task Force recommendation is to increase spilling water at dams to benefit downstream passage for juvenile salmon. That would require a change to Washington water quality standards, the report says, to allow for higher levels of total dissolved gas at the dams resulting from more spill.

 

“The science is clear and the public strongly supports increased spill at the federal dams on the Columbia & Snake Rivers and removal of the lower Snake River dams,” said Bill Arthur of the Sierra Club. “These are essential actions to rebuild salmon populations in the near and long-term. With its recommendations, the Orca Task Force has called for urgent action in the Columbia Basin. We call on Governor Inslee to prioritize these actions.”

 

By U.S. District Court order, three federal Columbia and Snake river dam operating agencies, along with NOAA Fisheries, are in the process of creating a new biological opinion of the power system. Spill and dam removal are being evaluated. The final environmental impact statement and BiOp are expected in 2020 or 2021.

 

The population of Southern Resident orcas dropped to 82 in 2003 and to the current number of 74 in 2005, prompting NOAA Fisheries to list the population as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. In Canada the whales were listed under the Species at Risk Act in 2003. While the orca population made some progress in the interim, recent losses and orcas’ difficulty in bringing a pregnancy to a birth have left the population at 74. None of the Southern Resident calves born between 2015 and 2018 has survived.

 

“As co-chairs of the task force, we are submitting an ambitious package of science-based recommendations for your consideration,” said Task Force co-chairs Les Purce and Stephanie Solien in the report’s cover letter to Inslee. “If enacted, these recommendations will make significant progress toward recovering our Southern Residents.”

 

“The extinction of these orcas would be an unacceptable loss,” the report says. “These orcas are beloved and hold significant value as an iconic and treasured species in Washington and throughout the Pacific Northwest, particularly for tribal communities. They also serve as an indicator of the health of our waters. Action is required immediately to help the orcas and the entire ecosystem we depend upon.”

 

The task force had nearly 50 representatives from tribal, federal, local and other state governments, state agencies, the Washington State Legislature, the private sector, nonprofit organizations and the Government of Canada.

 

"The resulting process brought together diverse voices from a variety of perspectives, yet all had the same goal – to protect and recover these iconic and endangered creatures,” Inslee said. “These recommendations include the weight of extensive public engagement and feedback. We heard from thousands of people from all over the state, region and the world who are very passionate about saving these animals.”

 

The recommendations support four goals:

Goal 1: Increase chinook abundance.

Goal 2: Decrease disturbance of and risk to Southern Resident orcas from vessels and noise, and increase their access to prey.

Goal 3: Reduce the exposure of Southern Resident orcas and their prey to contaminants.

Goal 4: Ensure that funding, information and accountability mechanisms are in place to support effective implementation.

 

Among the 36 recommendations are:

* increase investments in restoration and acquisition of habitat that will benefit chinook stocks;

* increase investments in restoration and acquisition of near shore habitat to increase the supply of forage fish;

* strengthen protections for both chinook and forage fish through legislation;

* increase hatchery production consistent with sustainable fisheries;

* reestablish salmon runs in areas blocked by dams;

* consider management actions to address pinniped predation in Puget Sound and along the Washington coast, as well as in the Columbia River;

* reduce predation on salmon by non-native predators, such as bass, channel catfish and walleye, along with other predators;

* reduce vessel noise;

* establish a limited entry whale watching permit system, revise the orca buffer from 200 yards to 400 yards, or all together end whale watching for three to five years (according to a report in the Capitol Press, the Pacific Whale Watching Association was the only group that rejected the report);

* reduce threats from stormwater runoff and other toxins.

 

The task force ends with a recommendation to provide sustainable funding for all the recommendations.

 

According to Inslee, he will review the recommendations over the coming weeks, assess each one for the most impact in the short and long-term, and then “roll out my budget and policy priorities in mid-December for consideration during the 2019 Legislative Session.”

 

The Southern Resident Orca Task Force Report and Recommendations is at https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/OrcaTaskForce_reportandrecommendations_11.16.18.pdf?utm_medium=email&utm_source=gov

 

The Task Force webpage is at https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/energy-environment/southern-resident-killer-whale-recovery-and-task-force

 

NOAA Fisheries Recovery Plan is at (https://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/publications/protected_species/marine_mammals/killer_whales/esa_status/srkw-recov-plan.pdf). It details and analyzes potential threats affecting Southern Residents and outlines an adaptive management approach to recovery strategies addressing each threat, based on the best available science, the Task Force report says.

 

Also see:

 

-- CBB, September 28, 2018, “Orca Task Force Recommendations Include Focus On Salmon Runs; Non-Native Game Fish To ‘Predatory,’” http://www.cbbulletin.com/441561.aspx

 

-- CBB, Sept. 14, 2018, “NOAA Fisheries Studying Nighttime Behavior Of Endangered Killer Whales As Part Of Action Plan” http://www.cbbulletin.com/441483.aspx

 

--CBB, May 11, 2018, “Puget Sound Boaters Asked To Observe ‘No-Go’ Zone To Protect Foraging Orcas,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440697.aspx

 

--CBB, March 16, 218, “Washington Governor Signs Executive Order To Protect Orcas, Chinook Salmon” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440354.aspx

 

-- CBB, Jan. 15, 2016, “Study: Chinook Salmon Make Up 80 Percent Of Diet For ESA-Listed Killer Whales In Pacific Northwest” http://www.cbbulletin.com/435857.aspx

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