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A plan emerges to help Puget Sound’s embattled orcas

The team assigned to rescue local orcas recommends measures that could grow the population by 10 whales over the next 10 years.

An orca from endangered J pod breaches west of Seattle on Jan. 18, 2014. (Photo by Elaine Thompson/AP)

A draft report released late Monday by Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca recovery task force offered a concrete goal to aid the region's struggling killer whales: 10 new Puget Sound orcas by 2028. 

Beyond growing the local population from 74 to 84 whales over the next 10 years, in the short term the task force hopes “to witness evidence of consistently well-nourished whales and the survival of several thriving young orcas” by 2022.

Monday’s draft report includes a range of proposed recommendations for the state government to act on. The task force plans to narrow those options by Nov. 16, at which time formal recommendations will be submitted to Gov. Jay Inslee.

The report temporarily punts on the most controversial measure: whether Lower Snake River dams should be removed. And while the task force has attached some dollar figures to its recommendations for the Legislature, many have no cost estimates yet.

Right now, two disappearances and the death of a newborn calf have dropped the number of Puget Sound’s three orca pods to 74 — the second-lowest number in a half century. The population climbed to 98 in 1995 from a low of 71 in 1976, but has dropped steadily ever since because of disturbances from passing vessels, water pollution and a drop in the fatty adult Chinook salmon runs the killer whales rely on. Chinook salmon numbers have dropped from 335.8 million in 1992 to 175.8 million in 2016, according to state government figures.

The task force will accept public comments on the draft report through Oct. 7 and discuss those comments at an Oct. 17-18 meeting in Tacoma. Then the task force will seek another round of public comments following that meeting — part of its commitment to studying the issues through Oct. 1, 2019.

The following are highlights of the recovery options under consideration.

Lower Snake River Dam Removal

The most controversial aspect of the orca recovery plans under discussion concerns whether the four Lower Snake dams should eventually be removed to ease the migration of salmon up and down the river. The task force has been  split on removing the dams: Environmentalists and tribes are in favor of removal, but the dams remain popular east of the Cascades with locals and business owners, where they provide irrigation water for farms, at least 4 percent of the state’s electricity and allow for barge traffic to ship the interior Northwest’s agricultural products. 

Monday’s draft report considers two options for the dams. The first suggests Gov. Inslee could push the federal government to help analyze the effect of removing some of the 14 dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The second option is for Inslee to hire a neutral party to convene forums of interested parties to examine the pros and cons of removing four Lower Snake River dams, with a recommendation returned to the task force by September 2019.

Other Dam Measures

Smaller dams are in the crosshairs, too: The task force has already discussed the possible removal of six small dams in the next one to five years: the Pilchuck Dam in Snohomish County, the Nelson Dam on the Naches River near Yakima, the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam between Bellingham and Mount Baker, the Chambers Creek Dam near Steilacoom, the Enloe Dam in northern Okanogan County, and the Puyallup River’s Electron Dam northwest of Mount Rainier.

The task force is also considering a state-sponsored study on dam spillover for the four Lower Columbia and four Lower Snake dams. Spillover keeps young salmon (called smolts) from going through dam turbines, but the quick pressure changes associated with spillovers could still kill smolts.

Hatcheries

To boost salmon populations, the task force is recommending to increase salmon hatchery production beyond 2019 levels by increasing state funding by a yet-to-be-determined amount.

The state could also fund test projects to adjust hatchery locations and release frequency. This might improve smolt survival, increase the sizes and ages of returning salmon and help hatchery salmon survive competition with wild fish. This option comes with an annual $650,000 price tag over five years.

Curbing salmon-munching sea lions

Sea lions and seals are so efficient at eating salmon stocks that they pose a serious threat to orcas. The task force recommends launching scientific studies to determine optimal sea lion populations and whether removal is necessary.

Protecting Orcas From Passing Vessels

Vessel disturbances remain a significant threat to orcas, and as such the task force has explored installing underwater hydrophones to better understand the effects of vessel noise on killer whales. The task force is also deciding whether to recommend a speed limit of seven knots for any boat within a half mile of an orca. Another option is to provide money to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for orca protection patrols. Boaters passing within watching distance of orcas could be granted a 15-minute grace period of watching before being required to move on.

Whale watching could be affected, too. Mitigations might include enacting a permit system or enforcing permanent and temporary “no-go” zones where orca watching is off-limits.

Dealing With Puget Sound Pollution

Puget Sound orcas generally have high levels of toxicity in their blood. To protect orcas from oil spills, the task force might recommend that the Legislature require tugs for all oil-carrying vessels of more than 5,000 tons and might require the oil industry to station an oil-cleanup vessel within easy response distance of the appropriate shipping lanes.

The task force has suggest the state could expand and complete its ban on PCBs to prevent them from flowing into Puget Sound. Meanwhile, the state could map out a prioritized list of other chemicals to banned or curb.

Human presence near orca habitat is a toxic threat in itself. Increased standards and inspections of the effluents from sewage treatment plants could help, as well as removal of deposits of underwater sediments laced with toxins.

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A plan emerges to help Puget Sound’s embattled orcas