Washington Lawmakers Move to Save Orcas

Southern Resident killer whale eating a Chinook salmon. (Center for Whale Research)

(CN) – Lawmakers in Washington state have introduced three bills aimed at preventing the extinction of Southern Resident killer whales, adding to actions that may be funded under Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal for 2019-2021.

The bill proposed Wednesday are based on recommendations from the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force. They would increase habitat for the fish whales eat, establish safety rules for oil tankers traversing the Salish Sea where whales live and require boats to slow down near whales and avoid approaching them. The laws would supplement the $1.1 billion in action to help the whales under Gov. Inslee’s budget proposal.

Southern Residents are a unique group of orca that eat fish rather than seals and other sea mammals. They live in three extended family-like pods in the inland waters between Seattle and the Pacific Ocean.

There are currently 75 Southern Resident killer whales, down from 98 in 1995. Three pregnancies were observed this fall, but only one calf has so far been seen alive.

Inslee’s task force identified three main problems the orcas face: a lack of food from dwindling runs of Chinook salmon, and the smaller fish salmon eat; urban pollution that seeps into the water, concentrates in the whales’ fat and harms their reproductive rates; and noise from ship traffic that makes it harder for the whales to communicate and find food.

The proposed bills, and the governor’s budget, would address all three problems.

Rep. Brian Blake, whose House Bill 1580 to reduce ship noise and create a no-go zone within 400 yards of the whales, said he was confident that the action would not negatively impact the area’s thriving whale-watching industry.

“The thing is, we don’t have a choice here,” Blake, a Democrat from Aberdeen, said. “We either push forth a collaborative effort to protect the whales or there won’t be any whales to watch.”

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