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Friday, March 1, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Seattle agrees to fund studies, habitat to offset future harm to endangered orcas

The port will pay for studies of the ship noise it produces and improve salmon habitat intended to increase the whales’ main food source.

(CN) — The Port of Seattle agreed Tuesday to take steps to help endangered Southern Resident killer whales survive in the Salish Sea to offset the harm caused by the port’s dredging project.

Only 73 Southern Resident killer whales swim the Salish Sea. The three pods, or family lines, of Southern Residents took a major hit in the late 1960s when aquariums stole 45 animals from their families and killed another 14 in the process. Only one of the whales taken during that time survives today: a 53-year-old whale who lives at the Miami Seaquarium. The Seaquarium calls her Lolita, while supporters who want her returned to a protected cove of the Salish Sea call her Tokitae.

The pods' numbers have continued to decline over the years, despite government efforts to reverse the trend. Now there’s a new worry: the underwater cacophony of ultra-large container ships that could soon visit Seattle Harbor, in the heart of the whales’ home waters, and the release of hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of toxic material dredged during the harbor project.

This past March, the Center for Biological Diversity sued over the planned expansion of the Seattle Harbor that will allow huge new container ships to navigate the inland waters home to endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The plan includes a dredging project that will remove over 1 million cubic yards of material — enough to fill 300 Olympic-size swimming pools. And nearly a quarter of that contains toxic or hazardous contaminants, according to the center’s lawsuit.

The final report from a task force convened by Washington Governor Jay Inslee called for Inslee to have the state Department of Ecology and Department of Fish and Wildlife engage in environmental assessments of “project-related shipping’s cumulative effects on Southern Resident orcas.”

But the Seattle Harbor project, approved in 2019, would worsen all three of the primary causes for the orcas’ decline: noise that drowns out the clicks and calls they use to echolocate their prey, toxic chemicals in the water that are absorbed by the fish the whales eat, and then into their fat stores, where they disrupt the whales’ endocrine function, reducing their ability to reproduce, and potentially harming the salmon whales depend on.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found the project would have no significant environmental impact, and National Marine Fisheries Service said the project was unlikely to adversely affect Southern Resident killer whales.

Those agencies were the original targets of the lawsuit, but the port intervened as local sponsor of the Seattle Harbor Navigation Improvement Project.

On Tuesday, the center agreed to a voluntary dismissal based on the port’s agreement to fund $640,000 in research and environmental remediation. The money will pay for a monitoring study that evaluates underwater noise caused by the dredging project and a second study intended to recommend improvements to the monitoring of ship noise in the Salish Sea. The port will also pay to improve salmon habitat in the Duwamish River and Elliott Bay.

“The port is committed to helping assure that commerce, communities and killer whales can coexist,” said Port of Seattle Commission President Fred Felleman. “This is truly a win-win for all the parties involved.”

The agreement resolves the lawsuit.

“Saving Southern Resident killer whales from extinction requires monitoring and minimizing disruptions to feeding, which this agreement does,” said Catherine Kilduff at the Center for Biological Diversity. “By restoring salmon habitat, monitoring noise and participating in a solution-seeking stakeholder group, the port is taking the necessary steps on the path to recovering Seattle’s orcas.”

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Categories / Environment, Government, Regional, Science

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