End of whale watching? Orca task force wants temporary ban

Measures will require “significant investment” from the state and regional partners, report says.

A special task force convened by Governor Jay Inslee to help save Washington’s critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales released its first report last week.

The 148-page report enumerates the challenges facing the beloved orca population — whose numbers have dwindled to just 74 animals after three widely reported deaths this past year — and proposed measures to help bring them back to health.

The committee focused on three key threats facing the whales: lack of prey, noise pollution from vessel traffic that makes it harder to hunt and toxic contaminants in the marine environment.

Washington’s orcas depend on salmon, with about 80 percent of their diet coming from Chinook salmon. Adult males need about 325 pounds of salmon per day.

To increase salmon abundance, the task force recommended the state invest in restoring and preserving salmon habitats.

The document recommends the Legislature “significantly increase funding for a minimum of 10 years for high-priority actions or projects targeted to benefit Chinook stocks,” and purchase lands for habitat preservation.

A significant increase in hatchery production is also recommended, in a “manner consistent with sustainable fisheries and stock management.”

The committee, composed of representatives from local and state government, tribal organizations, nonprofits and many other groups, took a hard look at hydropower dams, which have been blamed for blocking salmon migration and significantly affecting stocks. The report calls for increased funding to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to “reestablish sustainable salmon runs” above the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River and other Puget Sound dams. It also recommends further discussion on the lower Snake River Dams, decades-old hydropower infrastructure, including hiring a neutral third party to evaluate issues related to “possible breaching or removal.”

Among recommendations to reduce noise pollution are suggested “go-slow” zones near SRKW populations for commercial vessels, a limited-entry permit system for whale watching and what’s called Recommendation 28, to suspend orca whale watching in the Puget Sound for the next three to five years, a controversial suggestion that would require legislation and has been met with criticism from whale-watching groups.

As for toxic pollutants, the task force recommends reducing the risk of a catastrophic oil spill by, among other things, passing legislation that would prevent infrastructure to support oil and gas drilling off the coast of Washington.

Many of the recommendations contained in the extensive report will be put to lawmakers during the upcoming legislative session, which begins on January 8.

A second and final SRKW task force report, to evaluate the progress of its recommendations, is due October 1, 2019.