Orcas hunt in outer coast waters

This February 2015 photo shows a member of the L pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales off North Head in Pacific County waters.

OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has announced a budget that includes investments to save Southern Resident orca whales that travel between Washington’s outer coast and Puget Sound. Much of his budget is aimed at increasing the number of Chinook salmon, the killer whales’ primary food source, in the Columbia River basin and in Puget Sound, and includes funding a task force to look at breaching Snake River dams.

If Inslee’s budget is approved by the Washington Legislature in 2019, it could provide as much as $1.1 billion in the state’s operating, capital and transportation budgets towards saving orcas in the next biennium (2019 – 2021), according to Inslee’s office.

Besides helping orcas, the investments will also have benefits for the region’s entire ecosystem and help efforts to recover salmon, address climate change and improve water quality, Inslee’s website says.

“We are undertaking a herculean effort to save these iconic creatures. It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state,” Inslee said. “We need to restore the ecosystem to one that sustains orcas, salmon and the quality of life for all Washingtonians.”

Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force delivered Nov. 16 its final list of ways to help the whales in Puget Sound recover. The report 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 of just 74 whales.

There are a number of causes for the orca decline, according to the report, but broadly it has been due to vessel traffic, contaminants and lack of prey. Orcas’ favored prey is Chinook salmon, which makes up 80 percent of the whales’ diet. An adult male orca needs about 325 pounds of Chinook salmon every day. 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.

Among the recommendations by the task force are to consider establishing a stakeholder process to consider removal of four lower Snake River dams and to increase spill at lower Snake and Columbia river dams.

The task force recommended the state support four broad goals to benefit orcas:

• Increase the abundance of Chinook salmon

• Decrease disturbance and other risks posed by vessel traffic and noise

• Reduce exposure to toxic pollutants — for orcas and their prey

• Ensure adequate funding, information and accountability measures are in place to support effective recovery efforts moving forward

In his budget, Inslee includes $363 million in the capital budget for salmon recovery, culvert removal, water quality and water supply projects, all to improve salmon survival in the state. The $296 million transportation budget includes an increase of $205 million to correct fish passage barriers on state highways, which will meet the requirements of a U.S. District Court Injunction that requires their removal. The litigation went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a tie sent it back to the lower court.

Among the projects Inslee wants to fund are:

• $6.2 million in the operating budget to boost enforcement and improve compliance with state and federal habitat protection laws.

• $17.8 million in the operating and capital budgets to create incentives that encourage voluntary actions by landowners to protect habitat through the Washington State Conservation Commission.

• Nearly $12 million in the operating budget to maximize existing capacity at Department of Fish and Wildlife hatcheries to produce an additional 18.6 million salmon smolts, which will result in approximately 186,000 additional adult returns.

• Capital investments totaling $75.7 million to make improvements to keep the hatchery system operating and meet water quality standards.

• $524,000 in the operating budget to examine issues related to increasing the Chinook population by reestablishing salmon runs above Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River.

• $743,000 in the operating budget to improve monitoring and management of forage fish that provide a food source for Chinook.

• $580,000 is directed to the Department of Ecology to increase the amount of water in salmon-bearing rivers and streams by modifying state Water Quality Standards that will allow more spill over Columbia and Snake river dams.

• $750,000 will support the stakeholder process to remove the four lower Snake River dams. However, Inslee’s office also recognizes that the “dams support irrigation, public water availability, recreation, navigation, energy and hatcheries. The Snake River dams also have a very productive salmon hatchery operating as part of their required environmental mitigation.”

• The operating budget includes $4.7 million to collect additional population information and develop management options for pinnipeds in Puget Sound and to increase management actions in the Columbia River.

• Inslee would place limits for three years on whale watching, both commercial and recreational. $1.1 would go to WDFW for education and enforcement.

• The transportation budget includes $117 million to begin converting two state ferries from diesel to hybrid-electric and to begin constructing two new hybrid-electric ferries. The ferries would reduce noise and greenhouse gas emissions.

• To reduce toxic pollutants, Inslee’s budget includes $3 million to enhance local source control programs, $4.2 million to speed up management of toxic cleanups, $3.5 million to remove toxic creosote structures, $57.8 million to clean up toxic sites, $51 million to reduce and manage storm water, $32 million to address contaminants from waste water systems and other nonpoint sources, $2 million to test toxics in consumer products, $236,000 to reduce pharmaceuticals in waste water and $7.3 million for chemical action plans.

• The operating budget provides $1.4 million to monitor zooplankton and increase monitoring of pollution in marine waters and $3.5 million to conduct research and modeling.

• $1.3 million is included in the operating budget for state agencies to support overall recovery efforts and consultant support for the second year of the Governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.

“Everybody is involved in this mission and everyone has to be for it to succeed,” Inslee said in an interview with the Seattle Times. “These expenditures have to be done now. There are lots of things in life you can put off for a decade. This is not one of them … This is a one-time shot.”

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