From dam teardowns to a temporary moratorium on whale watching of southern residents by any boat, a governor’s task force on orca recovery released its first round of recommendations Friday.
Task-force members said at a news conference at the Seattle Aquarium that bold action is needed to save the critically endangered population of killer whales from extinction. Only 74 southern resident orcas remain.
The recommendations will depend on significant new funding from the state Legislature as well as new legislation to take effect, so the wish list is a long way from becoming reality for the whales.
Among the biggest changes called for is a 3- to 5-year moratorium on whale watching by any boat of the southern residents, to provide quieter waters for them.
Some of the most controversial issues considered by the task force were put off, including breaching of the Lower Snake River dams.
The busting of those dams — to support bigger returns of chinook salmon, orcas’ primary food — was the most broadly supported ask put forth in public comments to Gov. Jay Inslee’s task force.
The task force demurred, putting the issue to a study committee, but did single out two dams for removal within two years in Puget Sound: a dam on the middle fork of the Nooksack River and a dam on the Pilchuck River.
The task force also called for better enforcement of existing regulations to protect the whales.
A total of 36 recommendation after six months of work are intended to increase chinook abundance, decrease noise from vessels and reduce exposure of orcas and the salmon they eat to contaminants.
The task force also called for increasing the spill of water through the Columbia and Snake River dams, widely regarded by scientists as one of the best early steps that can be taken to help boost salmon survival.
The task force also supported funding to determine how to re-establish fish passage above the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River and on the Tacoma Water Diversion, Howard Hanson and Mud Mountain Dams in Puget Sound.
Boosts in hatchery production also were supported by the task force, where that doesn’t impede wild chinook recovery.
The focus on prey was driven by the orcas’ biggest need: access to adequate, high quality food, especially chinook, the orcas’ preferred fish.
Rob Williams of Oceans Initiative, a Seattle-based biologist who studies orcas on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, said he can’t tell because of a lack of modeling of the initiatives whether they go far enough to help the whales with a serious lack of food.
His recent paper published with other colleagues shows the southern residents need about 662 big fat chinook every single day to meet their calorie requirements and a return to salmon abundance near the highest levels since the 1970s to help the orcas recover through prey abundance alone.
Taking other steps to help the whales — such as reducing noise by 50 percent — combined with increasing chinook by at least 15 percent would allow the population to recover.
Lack of modeling in detail in the scientific assessment of the task force recommendations makes it impossible to know whether if enacted they will result in recovery, Williams said. He said he hopes a deeper dive into science-based predictions will help policy makers understand if they go far enough.
Other experts said the task force fell short. Ken Balcomb, a member of the task force and founding director of the Center For Whale Research abstained from voting on the report and panned its recommendations.
“Frankly, I am embarrassed for the conveners and participants of Orca Task Force who had to endure blatant and ill-informed political manipulation of a process launched with the good intention of doing something bold to help recover the Southern Resident Killer Whales,” Balcomb wrote in a statement.
He criticized the partial moratorium on whale watching as an ineffective political ploy, saying the “meaningless moratorium of a benign activity while skirting THE major problem for these whales — salmon population crashes throughout their range — is appalling.
“Honesty was crushed by politics and vested interests, even within agencies whose responsibility it is to manage natural resources sustainably. The whales are on their own in their downward spiral toward extinction along with the natural wild runs of chinook salmon the we used to call “King.”
Other task force members were more encouraged by the outcome, which they called a strong beginning on which policy makers must now build.
“The orca urged us on … to achieve what many said was impossible,” said task force co-chair Stephanie Solien.
Among the recommendations that will require legislative action are a half-mile go-slow zone around all southern residents, reducing vessel speeds to 7 knots or less, and an increase in the distance kept from the whales to 400 yards from the current 200.
The moratorium on whale watching of the southern residents by all boats also will require legislation. The moratorium, already opposed by whale-watch representatives on the task force, promises to be a fight in Olympia, if it gets that far.