Gov. Jay Inslee signed five crucial orca recovery bills into law that protect the safety and livelihood of the Southern resident orca on May 8. These unprecedented efforts — three of them governor-requested bills — focus on protecting orcas from vessel noise and traffic, improving the safety of oil transportation through the Salish Sea, and increasing fish forage habitat and Chinook salmon for the orca’s food source.
The most recent data from March states there are 75 Southern resident orcas left. According to the Marine Mammal Commission, the historical population may have numbered more than 200 animals before the 21st century, which is when modern impacts started to impact the orca population. Climate change, population change and more than a century of development and human activity along the Puget Sound and Columbia River have impacted orca survival rates. The Southern resident orca was listed as endangered in the United States in 2005.
“By signing these bills, we are investing in one of our most iconic Pacific Northwest animals,” Inslee said. “The orcas are part of our identity as Washingtonians, and we’ve gotten one step closer in protecting them, their homes and our own survival as we enter an unknown era of climate change. Our economic and climate change efforts need to aid their survival. For as the orca go, so go we.”
In March 2018, Inslee issued an executive order that directed state agencies to take immediate actions to help the struggling orca population and establish the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, which developed a long-term plan for recovering orcas. The task force included nearly 50 members that represented a wide range of sectors including state agencies, the Legislature and state, tribal, federal and local governments, as well as private sector and nonprofit organizations.
The task force set an initial target of increasing the population to 84 orcas over the next decade. The task force’s recommendations included:
• Increasing the abundance of Chinook salmon.
• Decreasing disturbance and other risks posed by vessel traffic and noise.
• Reducing exposure to toxic pollutants, for orcas and their prey.
• Ensuring adequate funding, information and accountability measures are in place to support effective recovery efforts moving forward.
Here’s a breakdown of each bill:
Decrease vessel noise and traffic
This new law limits certain vehicle noise and traffic and provides sound and space buffers for the orcas in their natural environment. Orcas need a lot of room to hunt and communicate (through echolocation) with minimized disruptions. The law will quiet the underwater soundscape so that individual orcas can locate and access their prey.
Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, who sponsored the House version of the bill, said this legislation worked for all groups who came to the table.
“We’re protecting our orcas by quieting the waters while also balancing the interests of both business and conservation groups,” Blake said. “If we hadn’t taken bold steps this session, pretty soon there wouldn’t be any whales to watch, and that would definitely kill the whale watching industry. Nobody wants that.”
The bill is the result of a collaborative compromise among stakeholders, which includes the whale watching industry. The group worked to come up with strong, meaningful protections to minimize the amount of interference the orcas experience.
Sen. Christine Rolfes said the protections steer us in the right direction.
“We know that the noise from marine traffic makes it more difficult for orca whales to communicate with one another and to hunt for increasingly scarce prey,” Rolfes said. “This legislation follows recommendations from the state’s scientific community and takes critical steps to quiet our waters and reduce vessel disturbance to marine life in Puget Sound.”
Jeff Friedman, U.S. president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said the organization is encouraged by the widespread recognition of the issues that orcas face.
“We have seen firsthand the changes in the Southern resident orca population and their need for action from everyone throughout Washington and beyond,” Friedman said. “This is something we feel in our daily lives, and we are looking forward to continuing to educate and enroll our passengers to help in continuing recovery efforts.”
Transport oil safely
This bill closes an important safety gap by requiring tug escorts for barges that transport millions of gallons of oil across the waters around Rosario Strait, which is one of the riskier areas to navigate in Puget Sound.
The law already requires escorts to accompany large oil tankers who travel through other areas of Puget Sound.
Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, the primary sponsor of the bill that improves oil transportation, said she’s proud of the work brought forth in these bills.
“This is one of many important steps we’re taking to ensure the health and safety of our orcas,” Lekanoff said. “The effects of oil spills on our orcas are irreversible but preventable. The work we have done this year will not only help our struggling killer whales but will also protect the Salish Sea for all the generations coming behind us. These efforts will protect Puget Sound and these mighty creatures.”
A devastating oil spill would severely impact orcas, salmon and other species while threatening tribal treaty rights and the economy of across the region. Having a tugboat escort means there’s immediate help on hand to prevent a spill. Inslee said the bill is a vital component of efforts to protect the sound.
“This is one of many important steps we’re taking to ensure the health and safety of our orcas,” Inslee said. “The effects of oil spills on our orcas are irreversible but preventable. I would like to thank Representative Lekanoff for leading this important effort to protect Puget Sound and one of its most inspiring treasures.”
Increase food source and protect shorelines
This new law implements key recommendations from the governor’s orca task force, recommendations that will improve habitat and forage fish population. These efforts will largely support salmon and orca recovery.
The bill also gives the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife the authority and tools to help landowners and local government create fish-friendly shorelines. Healthy shorelines is an important step to achieve salmon recovery.
“We can’t recover orca until we first recover salmon,” Inslee said.
The agency will have more authority to make sure people remain compliant with rules and make good decisions for fish and the environment. More than anything, this bill aims to educate landowners and local government before harm is done to the shorelines, streams and lakes that support fish habitat.
Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, said the state has made significant progress this session toward these issues.
“Protecting and restoring this habitat will help recover marine populations from forage fish at the bottom of the food chain, to chinook salmon in the middle, to orcas at the top,” Fitzgibbon said. “Our shorelines now have stronger protections because our fish habitat protection law is more enforceable, which can start to turn the tide for endangered orcas and salmon.”
A coalition of tribes, recreational and commercial anglers, and environmental stakeholders supported the bill.
Decrease toxics pollution
The governor also signed a toxics bill that benefits both human and marine health. Toxics accumulate in the bodies of people, fish and marine mammals and can compromise both their health and the health of their offspring.
The bill gives the Washington State Department of Ecology authority to restrict the use of high priority chemicals that harm kids and impact orcas and the environment. Washington can now take action on the sources of toxics rather than waiting for expensive and inefficient cleanup. Removing lead from paint and gasoline, copper from brake pads and flame retardants from furniture provides a successful template process to use for other chemicals that have demonstrated that Washington can be a leader in moving toward safer alternatives.
This bill ensures that Washington will not rely on “end-of-pipe” solutions but continue to tackle this problem at its source.
Enforce guidelines for whale watching
A final bill requires the Parks and Recreation Commission to adopt, enforce and include whale watching guidelines in boater safety education. This will bring more safety to orcas and people as they whale watch.
Recreational boaters often travel too fast on the water, cut off orcas, hover over or harass them and follow orcas unnecessarily. Boaters will now learn about the guidelines during the required class. The bill compliments the other orca efforts that the governor supports.
Washington’s partners in Canada are engaged in the same type of whale watching efforts to protect the region’s shared waters of the Salish Sea.
“I’m committed to efforts that make sure the coming generations of Washingtonians will enjoy these magnificent creatures and understand how taking care of their way of life also ensures our own way of life,” Inslee said.