Governor's task force releases draft plan to save southern resident orcas

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SEATTLE --Draft recommendations from the governor's southern resident killer whale task force were released Monday, shedding light on a plan to help save the endangered orcas.

The draft is filled with actionable items meant to address issues the orcas face, like prey availability, toxic contaminates and vessel traffic.

The 45-member task force will have time to suggest changes before the final report is due to Gov. Jay Inslee's office on Nov. 16. From there,  the governor might take executive action or bring recommendations to the state legislature.

The report is far-reaching, with more than 50 potential actions to take within the first year, some of which require legislative approval. Many are intended to deal with the lack of salmon, considered the number one problem facing the southern resident orca.

The public is encouraged to weigh in on the report by Oct. 7.

Southern resident killer whales' numbers are the lowest they've been in more than three decades, with only 74 left in the Puget Sound. Lead researchers say there's only about five years left until the current southern residents lose their reproductive abilities.

Each recommendation comes from one of three task force working groups: The Prey, Vessels and Contaminants working groups.

A number of the task force's suggestions include increased funding for things like habitat restoration and fish passage upgrades.

Potential Habitat Recommendation 1: 

In 2019, the Governor and Legislature should provide funding to the Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) to support habitat acquisition and restoration projects through existing capital budget salmon recovery accounts (Salmon Recovery Funding Board (SRFB), Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Program (PSAR), Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program (ESRP), and Washington Coast Restoration Initiative (WCRI)) for subsequent round of funding with no changes to existing ranked lists. Regions should work within their existing priorities that are consistent with high priority Chinook stocks to accelerate the pace of restoration throughout the Puget Sound, Washington Coast, and Columbia Basin. Regions — including state natural resource agencies — should fully exercise their technical and policy capacity to accelerate full implementation of habitat restoration projects that are currently under consideration, that have an established funding source, and that have feasibility studies indicating that the project would provide survival benefits to Chinook stocks important to the Southern Resident orcas. Additional state funding should be provided to focus specifically on Chinook stocks that most benefit Southern Residents for at least 10 years (5 biennia). These program have traditionally allocated approximately 80% of their funding towards projects that provide benefits to Chinook.

Some have lauded efforts to restore habitat and estuaries for salmon, but the most negative feedback Q13 News reporter Simone Del Rosario has received involves the lack of action regarding dams.

Two actions related to the ongoing operations of the Lower Snake River dams were ranked equally at three votes by the Prey Working group.

The Center for Whale Research's Ken Balcomb - a proponent of removing the Snake River dams - told Q13 News he is extremely disappointed with what he has seen so far.

"I have to really decide whether or not this task force is for me or not. It doesn't seem to be for the whales so, therefore, I think it's not for me," Balcomb said.

Another concern is what appears to be a heavy reliance on hatchery production and killing seals and sea lions, which eat the fish orca need.

Potential predation combination recommendation 2A:

Potential predation combination recommendation 2A: Task force members and the governor should support efforts to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act, or MMPA, to more effectively manage pinniped predation of salmonids in the Columbia River. The task force should join the governor in expressing public support for a Columbia River-specific amendment to the MMPA, which is currently under consideration in Congress.

Alternatively, or in the meantime, the governor and task force should support an application for MMPA authorization to increase effectiveness of the management program by allowing the management of Steller sea lions, increasing removal levels and altering removal requirements. In the case of an application for MMPA authorization, the governor should request that the Washington federal delegation support funding capacity for NOAA to review the application expediently. To implement increased management through either a MMPA amendment or additional MMPA authorization, the legislature should provide additional funding to WDFW to work with partners to carry out the program (estimated at an additional $600,000 per biennium).

To monitor the effectiveness of the management program, the governor should request that NOAA provide federal funding to monitor Chinook salmon survival from the Columbia River estuary to Bonneville Dam. The governor and legislature should provide complimentary state funding for WDFW to perform pinniped distribution surveys for this same area (estimated at $40,000 per biennium). In combination, these two analyses will greatly help to guide current and future management actions.

In another effort to boost salmon numbers, a recommendation would reclassify popular sport fish like bass and walleye as "invasive" in certain waterways, eliminating catch limits and impacting sport fishermen.

Potential predation recommendation 3:

The governor should consult with WDFW and the Invasive Species Council and then support reclassifying nonnative predatory fish (including, but not limited to, walleye, bass, and catfish) from game fish to invasive species to allow and encourage removal of these predatory fish in waters containing salmon or other ESA-listed species. It is currently illegal to "waste" sport fish and in many rivers/lakes the harvest of these nonnative predators is regulated by catch limits. Any increase in fishing for these species should not increase bycatch of salmonids.

There are 13 actionable items in the draft related to vessels and vessel noise. A statewide "slow -- no white-water wake" zone while in sight of orcas is proposed.

Potential vessel recommendation 1:

In the 2019 legislative session, the state legislature and governor should update RCW 77.15.740* to establish a statewide “go slow” bubble for vessels operating within ½ nautical mile of orcas. “Go slow” is defined as 7kt speed over ground (GPS calculation). It is intended that fish and wildlife officers and other law enforcement officers will use discretion when enforcing this section and provide public outreach and education when they determine that it is appropriate.

A permitting system for whale watching boats is suggested that "restricts" the number of commercial whale watching vessels allowed near groups of southern resident orcas.

Potential vessel recommendation 4:

By May 2019, the legislature and governor should establish a Salish Sea limited-entry whale watching permit system, to be managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, that restricts the number of commercial whale-watching vessels and commercial kayak groups around the Southern Resident orcas each day and that sets a cap on the number of permits issued for Puget Sound with a buyback program initiated by funding in the next state biennial budget. A Salish Sea limited-entry whale watching permit would be required for Canadian commercial whale-watching vessels that enter Washington state waters. This system should be coupled with requirements such as the use of Automatic Identification Systems to promote effective monitoring and compliance. Begin discussions with Canada (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) to establish a similar system in Canada that would be required for US commercial whale-watching vessels that enter Canadian waters.

Recommendations also included supporting quieter state ferries and learning more about how underwater noise levels impact the orcas.

Nine action items also deal with pollutants, taking steps to reduce "stormwater threats" and providing financial incentive to companies that reduce toxins.

This story is developing and will be updated throughout the week.