J-50, the young whale pictured, was a young southern resident orca that disappeared in early September and is presumed dead (Center for Whale Research Photo).

J-50, the young whale pictured, was a young southern resident orca that disappeared in early September and is presumed dead (Center for Whale Research Photo).

Orca proposals fall short with islanders

A lengthy draft of recommendations released by Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca task force last week aims to stem the decline of the beleaguered southern residents, but island experts say revisions are necessary for it to be successful.

In March, Inslee signed an executive order appointing state agencies, tribal leaders, local governments, federal partners and other stakeholders to a cooperative task force, which has met throughout the summer. Members of several large working groups focusing on obstacles related to prey availability, contaminants and vessel interference have put forward a number of possible recommendations in the 53-page document to be considered by the task force and finalized before Nov. 16. Their recommendations involve a wide range of measures, from assessing dam removal to curbing pesticides to increasing hatchery production. Some island advocates concerned by looming environmental threats say the draft is a promising start, but that the real work has only just begun.

“The last century was defined by this stake in our ability to solve problems with technology, that we could improve on Mother Nature. We just need to look around and read the newspapers to see that strategy has not served us well or the places we live,” said islander Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon.

Bogaard believes that a number of immediate priorities need to be advanced by the task force, among them increasing water rerouted via spillways through regional basins and dams, such as those in the Snake River. Doing so will deliver greater numbers of migrating juvenile salmon to the Pacific Ocean, where they would be available for the orcas, but some state Republican legislators have opposed rapid changes to dam operations, according to The Seattle Times.

Bogaard added that it is critical the public acquire a greater faith in nature.

Barriers, culverts and dams identified as impeding salmon migration, he said, must be designated for removal in order to restore vital habitat and, ultimately, the outlook of starving southern resident orcas.

“We need to be taking increased measures to protect, restore and reconnect salmon habitat across the basins of the Salish Sea and in the Columbia Basin,” he said. “We can support communities that rely on the service of the dams today. The longer we wait to make these sort of transitions, the longer we pay for the cost.”

One proposed recommendation included in the draft called for a neutral forum of stakeholders intended to evaluate “the costs, benefits, risks and other issues related to the possible future removal of the four Lower Snake River dams.” In addition, other recommendations were made to increase spill at existing dams, paying mind to limits allowed by current regulations, which cite impacts on water quality and would require adjustments.

“In many respects, I think many people probably recognize the heart and soul of our region is on the line,” said Bogaard. “It’s a reflection of the fact that we have not honored and respected the ecosystem and the rivers, the marine waters of this region, and we’re paying the price.”

Islander Amy Carey, executive director of Sound Action, is a member of the task force’s prey availability working group. She said that over the course of hundreds of hours, the group has devised several recommendations to increase chinook populations, including actions related to dams, hatcheries, salmon harvest, habitat protection and the potential impacts of predation on chinook.

“The prey availability work group, in many ways, had a really large chunk of the work,” she said, adding that her contributions were primarily specific to drafting recommendations related to habitat protection.

Carey said her working group sought to first ensure the full application and enforcement of existing laws, and proposed new environmental protections as an additional aspect of their efforts. But she noted that some work group members have raised concerns about language in the draft document released by the task force, which amended some of their original recommendations. Because of this, some of their recommendations were either eliminated, or their intent was lost.

“One of the primary recommendations the work group had and [drafted] with intent of language is related to permitting agencies like the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the Department of Ecology (DOE) to protect habitat by fully applying existing laws and regulations to proposed projects,” she said, noting that there was a mutual recognition in her working group of a support gap for a number of agencies, which could better oversee current protections.

According to Carey, the prey work group proposed a year-one action that called for the governor to direct the WDFW and DOE to fully apply existing habitat and water quality regulations when considering permits, and to use a precautionary approach.

“That recommendation was amended post-working group to the point that it was eliminated,” she said, adding she has heard similar concerns from members of other work groups.

Carey says that in upcoming weeks, they will be working with task force staff and work group members to make corrections and restore the original language, as well as the intention behind some of the proposed recommendations.

According to the draft report, the task force will be able to modify the recommendations presented in the early iteration, and “may also choose to discuss some of the action ideas in 2019 for potential inclusion” in the final report.

“I do think it’s important that the public know that what they’re seeing is not finalized,” said Carey, emphasizing that it is up to the public to demand accountability and help move ideas forward. As the situation facing the southern residents has worsened, Carey said the task force has watched worst-case scenarios play out in real time.

“When Tahlequah lost her calf, there was a palpable change,” she said. “There was sort of a new fire brewing in the process, I think, and even just a brighter beacon of urgency.”

Carey added that the task force, now more than ever, is pursuing meaningful change and urgent, progressive momentum to make it happen as quickly as possible.

“That is still our goal and our hope,” she said.

Islander Ann Stateler, or “Orca Annie” as she is widely known, of the Vashon Hydrophone Project, does not believe the first draft of proposed recommendations goes far enough. She called them “anemic half-measures, tinkering around the edges of an extinction crisis,” and named several of the draft’s components — such as gradual removal of four dams in the lower Snake River — as a long-term response to an unfolding crisis that won’t make enough of a difference in time.

“If you can muster the political will to breach those dams, go for it, but my problem with it is that it’s not an emergency response,” she said. “That is not something that is going to happen anytime soon.”

Stateler said she was alarmed by key recommendations submitted by the vessel interference and prey availability working groups, which she said were too vague. She noted one of her greatest fears was of a lackluster response to a potential oil spill, which she said would doom the southern resident orcas. She would also like to call for a moratorium on all whale watching excursions that focus on observing the southern residents in Puget Sound, and for the establishment of defined foraging refuges where the orcas can feed away from human disturbance.

The vessel interference working group proposed one recommendation in the draft that would establish a forum to evaluate acceptable underwater noise levels, identify appropriate whale watch guidelines and support research into noise levels generated by passing ships. Underwater noise has been found to interfere with the orcas’ ability to use echolocation to find their food, according to research by Chris Clark, a bioacoustic engineer at Cornell University.

“The public does not understand what a threat acoustic disturbances are,” said Stateler. “If you have all these boats around emitting noise in the water, the noise level in the water gets so bad that it essentially blinds the whales.”

In recent years, the Port of Vancouver has activated a voluntary vessel slowdown program, intended to reduce underwater noise from large commercial vessels within designated shipping lanes to curtail their intrusion on the orcas.

When she came to the Pacific Northwest in 1992, Stateler said, the southern residents were flourishing. Their population has since fallen from a high of 98 to 74, and with the presumed death of orca J50 declared just weeks ago, the orcas’ fate looks grimmer every day.

“I think of how many whales I’ve seen die, and I worry about that. Am I watching an extinction? That’s a depressing thought, and we’re at the point where if you care about these whales going extinct, everybody needs to step up and be willing to sacrifice something.”

The public is invited to submit feedback and comments on the draft report online at bit.ly/2R30G7E. The public comment period for the draft report will close at midnight on Oct. 7.

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