Environment

Task force urges help for salmon, ban on watching endangered orcas

Governor Jay Inslee’s task force on orcas says boosting the whales' salmon diet and giving them quiet, clean waters can save the southern resident killer whales from extinction.

At the top of the task force's list of 36 recommendations? A big boost to funding for acquiring habitat for chinook salmon, the mainstay of the whales’ diet, and better protection for the existing habitats for salmon and the smaller fish that they eat.

“The southern resident killer whales are facing a perfect storm of threats, but the lack of chinook salmon is at the eye of the storm,” said biologist Rob Williams with the nonprofit Oceans Initiative, who advised the task force.

Ten of the recommendations would require an act of the legislature, including a proposed three- to five-year moratorium on whale watching of the endangered orcas from any boats, even kayaks.

“When they’re in the area, let’s find a way to silence the waters so they can find food," task force co-chair and former Evergreen State College President Les Purce said. "We think that, the next 3-5 years, that can make a huge difference in their lives.”

The Pacific Whale Watch Association issued a statement that a moratorium is unnecessary and would have unintended consequences on the orcas.

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Task force co-chair and Puget Sound Partnership vice chair Stephanie Solien said that the southern resident orcas come into Puget Sound so infrequently now that they only support a small percentage of the region's whale watching business.

The task force held heavily attended public meetings across the state over the past seven months.

Williams said increasing the numbers of chinook salmon by 30 percent throughout the southern residents' range would be enough to gradually restore a healthy population of orcas. That would meet the federal goal of boosting the population, now at 74, by 10 whales in 10 years. A combination of more chinook and less noise could also do the trick.

The task force called for more study of controversial proposals, such as breaching four dams on the Snake River and shooting salmon-munching seals and sea lions in Puget Sound.