5 new laws aimed at recovering endangered southern resident orcas

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Among nearly three dozen bills Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law Wednesday are five that are particularly close to his heart and his agenda to recover the critically-endangered southern resident orcas.

Just 75 of the resident killer whales remain and far less are able to reproduce, leading to more deaths than births in the population for several years.

The orcas face complex threats driven by their lack of preferred prey, chinook salmon, which is also endangered. Vessel disturbance and pollution further aggravate their condition.

The five new state laws were inspired by the work and recommendations of the governor’s orca task force. Inslee signed an executive order in March of last year to form the body, which submitted final recommendations to the governor last November addressing the three main threats to the orcas.

“We know that saving our orca and chinook salmon, upon which they depend, and restoring their entire ecosystems is an urgent challenge,” Inslee said Wednesday at the bill signing, surrounded by dozens of supporters of orca recovery.

  • ESHB 1578 reduces threats to southern resident orcas by improving the safety of oil transportation.
  • 2SHB 1579 works to increase the abundance of chinook salmon through shoreline protections and permitting requirements, which benefit the forage fish chinook salmon rely on.
  • 2SSB 5577 increases the distance boats must stay away from the southern residents from 200 to 300 yards and 400 yards in front and behind the whales. It also mandates a go-slow zone and introduces a process to begin regulating the whale watching industry.
  • SB 5918 requires including whale watching guidelines in the boating safety education program.
  • SSB 5135 works to prevent and reduce toxic pollution that affects public health or the environment.

“If it wasn’t for the public and their outpouring of concern and support for the southern residents, showing up at every one of our task force meetings, contacting their legislators, writing in public comments, I don’t know that we’d be quite where we are,” said Stephanie Solien, co-chair of the governor’s orca task force.

Solien also credits Tahlequah, or J35, with raising enough awareness, concern and passion to promote bipartisan support for much of this legislation. Tahlequah is the mother orca who, in the summer of 2018, carried her dead calf on her head for 17 days and more than one thousand miles. Her so-called ‘tour of grief’ galvanized the world into concern and activism.

Even at the ceremonious bill signing, Solien was thinking about the tasks ahead for the task force, which the governor stood up for two years.

“We’re going to evaluate our successes but we’re also going to look at where there’s still gaps and things that, within our recommendations, that we believe are critical to the future health of the orcas,” she said. “What didn’t get acted on.”

She said habitat restoration is a primary concern. While the state legislature did increase funding for some shovel-ready restoration projects, salmon recovery in the state is still grossly underfunded.

The state has even fallen short of fully-funding projects it is court-ordered to complete.

The orca task force meets next on June 3 and will complete its work later this year.

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