Washington Governor Proposes Dramatic Plan to Save Dying Orca Population

The plan will require $1.1 billion and involve a number of controversial measures

Southern resident killer whales NOAA Fisheries West Coast via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

In an ambitious effort to save a flailing Northwest orca population, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has announced a dramatic—and costly—conservation plan. As Lynda V. Mapes of the Seattle Times reports, the proposed orca recovery measures call for $1.1 billion in funding and a number of controversial actions, among them supporting a task force that will investigate the possibility of breaching dams on the Lower Snake River.

Orcas that dwell in the waters off Washington, Oregon and British Columbia—known as southern resident killer whales—have experienced dramatic declines in recent years. As of September 2018, the southern resident population numbered just 74 individuals, the lowest in more than three decades. Several factors are pushing the whales towards extinction, including toxins in the water and rumbling from ship traffic, which can interfere with orcas’ ability to communicate about prey through echolocation. But a major threat to their survival is a decline in Chinook salmon, the whales’ primary food source, due to habitat destruction and intensive commercial fishing.

Southern resident whales feed on Chinook salmon year-round, but the fish are especially important during the spring and summer, when orcas need to bulk up for leaner winter months. Without sufficient quantities of their most important prey, southern residents have been effectively starving. The plight of this population came into sharp focus in August, when a mother orca named Tahlequah pushed her dead calf through the waters of Puget Sound for 17 days. In fact, over the past three years, no calves born to the southern resident population have survived.

Governor Inslee—who, according to Mapes, has a painting of Tahlequah and her dead calf hanging in his office—has proposed sweeping initiatives to get the orcas back on track. For one, in the hopes of quieting the whales’ habitat, he wants to ban whale-watching of southern residents for three years; the Associated Press reports that the ban will not apply to other whales, including non-resident orcas that migrate through Washington’s waters. Inslee also plans to establish a half-mile “go-slow” zone, which will impose speed limits on vessels, and double the size of an existing “no go zone” for boats.

Part of the funds will go toward improving and protecting Chinook salmon habitats, and removing culverts that stand in the way of migrating salmon—something that the state is required to do by a Supreme Court judgement that affirmed the ruling of a lower court in June. Inslee also proposed changing state standards to allow an increase in water spill over Columbia and State River dams, which will in turn allow more salmon to reach the ocean.

The spill measure is controversial because it will impact the ability to generate and sell power at the dams, according to Mapes. But Inslee does not plan to stop there. He wants to allocate $750,000 to a task force that will evaluate the repercussions of breaching several major dams on the Lower State River. Scientists and researchers contend that removing the dams is essential to ensuring that southern residents are able to get enough salmon, but federal agencies that manage the dams argue that altering the dams would only help two out of 15 salmon runs that the orcas depend upon for survival. Additionally, breaches could affect “shippers, irrigators, utilities, ports, tribes, fishermen and others,” Mapes writes.

To help fund his proposal, Inslee has called for an increase in business taxes and new capital tax gains. In a statement, the governor acknowledged that his plans will require a “herculean effort” and action “at every level of the environment across our entire state.” But “[w]ithout taking bold actions and drastically changing human impact to our environment,” his statement adds, “these animals may not survive.”

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