Legislation to help endangered orcas keeps moving toward approval

Members of the governor’s orca task force this week expressed hope and a bit of surprise as they discussed their recommendations to help the orcas —recommendations that were shaped into legislation and now have a fairly good chance of passage.

Over the years, some of their ideas have been proposed and discussed — and ultimately killed — by lawmakers, but now the plight of the critically endangered southern resident killer whales has increased the urgency of these environmental measures — including bills dealing with habitat, oil-spill prevention and the orcas themselves.

No doubt success this time can be credited in part to the Democrats taking over the majority in the Senate last year, giving their party control of both houses. But many Republicans are on board with the orca bills.

The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force met Monday, the first time the group met since November, when members voted to propose 36 recommendations to help save the whales from extinction. After that, the recommendations were crafted into bills by Gov. Jay Inslee’s staff.

It wasn’t as easy as one might think to find legislative sponsors for the bills, since many environmentally minded legislators were occupied with their own bills as well as leadership duties, said JT Austin, Inslee’s policy adviser on natural resources. But things fell into place before the gavel fell on the legislative session in January.

Task force members were quick to credit Austin with finding the right sponsors and shepherding the orca legislation through give-and-take negotiations and committee hearings.

“I want to remind people how far this particular task force has come in 10 months, said Mindy Roberts of Washington Environmental Council, a member of the task force, noting that the group quickly came together last summer to start their work.

“At the end of the year, we came up with 36 different actions,” she continued. “But remember, along the way, people told us, ‘Don’t ask for too much, because you’re not going to get anything,’”

But the task force “held strong” and finalized its 36 recommendations, some requiring policy changes and some needing legislation. Of the legislative actions, at least nine of them are contained in four bills still alive and moving through the Legislature, Mindy noted. “Keep in mind how incredibly far we have come.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the legislative proposals, however, especially when it comes to the millions of dollars that the actions would cost, said Brad Smith, a member of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission who serves on the task force.

In meeting with people throughout the state, Brad said, “I’m hearing an increased volume of people coming to me and saying, ‘Extinction IS an option,’ and it’s rather scary.”

Over dinner, one man in Bellingham told him, “We’re spending all that money to save 75 fish?”

Nobody was sure how to take Brad’s news, but some said there is a need for people to talk about why orcas and other endangered species should be allowed to survive.

Here’s a quick rundown on the three primary bills representing the task force recommendations:

Habitat protection

House Bill 1579 authorizes Department of Fish and Wildlife authorities to issue stop-work orders for violations of permits required for shoreline construction. The bill allows the agency to seek voluntary compliance, as opposed to a fine; to issue civil penalties, instead of criminal citations; and to deny bulkhead applications when warranted, instead of being limited to conditions of approval.

The bill, which I wrote about in Water Ways on Feb. 21, passed the full House on a 59-39 vote and is waiting for action in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks.

Oil spill prevention

House Bill 1578 would require a tug escort for oil tankers and barges transporting oil through Rosario Strait, a potentially hazardous passage near the San Juan Islands. The bill requires further studies and discussions about tug escorts and rescue tugs elsewhere along with other ideas.

It seems odd to summarize this bill and all the work that went into it in a single paragraph, considering that I have recently spent considerable time looking into the issue of vessel traffic and the risks of potential oil spills. Please check out my story published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. You’ll find the specifics of the legislation at the end of that story.

Anyway, that bill passed the House on a 70-28 vote with action pending in the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy and Technology.

Vessel noise and interference

Senate Bill 5577 increases the distance that any boat may approach an orca from the previous 200 yards to 300 yards and establishes a new speed limit of 7 knots within half a mile. The intent is to reduce noise and interference around the whales. The bill also includes new provisions for licensing commercial whale-watching boats.

The orca task force had proposed a moratorium on any commercial whale watching around the southern resident orcas, but that provision was dropped to increase support for the rest of the bill. Some members — including Donna Sandstrom of The Whale Trail — were dismayed, saying the whales would benefit little from the new distances in the legislation.

In explaining why the moratorium was dropped, JT Austin said she could not find a legislator who would champion a temporary ban on commercial whale watching, and a failure to compromise would have risked sinking the bill entirely.

“That risk was very high,” she said, “and I was not willing to take that risk. The governor was not willing to take that risk.”

With the moratorium out of the bill, it passed the Senate on a 46-3 vote and is pending action in the House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture, and Natural Resources.

2 thoughts on “Legislation to help endangered orcas keeps moving toward approval

  1. Has anyone looked at why the whales have changed their diet so much in just a few years? I watched the whales in Dyes Inlet in 1995 gorge themselves an the record run of Chum salmon. The dozen or so whales stuck around for a month till the fish were gone. I’m certain there were no Chinook runs in the bay.

    1. Actually they have not changed there diet. Chum is still on their menu and they will certainly gorge on it when available. Chinook however make up over 80% of their total diet. Runs off all their favorites, Chum, Chinook and Coho however have greatly declined since that amazing week in Dyes Inlet years ago.

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