Washington’s orca-rescue plan could include creating more fish habitat in Puget Sound and taking another look at removing Lower Snake River dams, according to a task force’s preliminary proposals.
Orcas don’t have enough fish to eat, especially Chinook salmon, according to a task force report. The group may recommend studying how much the killer whales would benefit by breaching Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams on the Snake River.
“Spring Chinook from the Columbia Basin warrant special attention,” task force co-chairmen Stephanie Solien and Thomas Purce said in an Oct. 15 letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. In addition to eventually removing the dams, in the meantime task force leaders want additional water spilled from them to aid salmon migrations.
Another proposal is to make more fish habitat in several basins in northwest and southwest Washington. Such projects in the past have included breaching dikes and flooding fields that had been used for agriculture.
The 49-member task force, which was created by Inslee, will meet next week to finalize its recommendations. One task force member, House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said on Oct. 29 that there are more effective ways to help orcas than taking out the Snake River dams.
“I personally do not support removal of the Snake River dams. I think it’s the wrong thing to be studying,” Blake said.
Some 76 orcas that travel between southern Alaska and central California spend most of the year in the Salish Sea and off the coast of Washington — often in Pacific County waters.
The first census counted 66 orcas in 1973. The population peaked at 98 in 1995. The orcas are believed to be in poor condition and struggling to reproduce, according to the report.
Inslee created the task force in May.
Public attention on orcas increased in July, when an orca nicknamed Tahlequah by a whale museum had a calf that lived for just half an hour. Tahlequah carried the calf for 17 days over more than 1,000 miles in “what was widely seen as a display of deep mourning,” according to the task force report.
Orcas have become central in the long-running debate whether to remove the Lower Snake River dams to produce more salmon.
As of Oct. 29, more than 653,000 people had signed an online petition to remove the dams to save orcas. Farm groups say the dams are important for barging wheat.
The task force is considering whether to recommend Washington, in conjunction with Idaho and Oregon, hire a “third-party neutral” to lead a study on whether removing the dams would be worth the costs. The costs would include replacing barges, losing hydroelectricity and sediment washing over salmon spawning beds.
The study would be due by spring of 2020 to contribute to a court-ordered environmental review of the federal Columbia River hydropower system operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to the task force.
The task force may recommend spending $60 million over the next two years for salmon recovery projects.
Blake said that he didn’t think flooding farms was necessary.
“I think there are folks outside the task force who are critical of agriculture,” Blake said. “I didn’t get the sense from talking to other people on the task force that attacking agriculture was high on their list.”
The task force also may recommend that state agencies work with tribes and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine whether pinnipeds, such as sea lions and harbor seals, are limiting the number of orcas. The fish-eating marine mammals are federally protected.
Other potential recommendations include increasing fish hatchery production, decreasing fishing, limiting whale-watching boats, banning off-shore oil drilling, stiffening penalties for polluting water or degrading habit, getting the Navy to be quieter during military exercises and charging boaters $10 a year to fund a “Be Whale Wise” campaign.