A series of 36 recommendations released by Gov. Jay Inslee’s task force this month direct the legislature, environmental agencies and other partners to swiftly intervene in the mounting crisis the ailing southern resident orcas are facing. Island experts agree that direct action must be taken to save the whales from starvation, but they report mixed feelings about the task force’s proposals.
The governor’s task force was convened by executive order in March and includes tribal leaders, elected officials, representatives of federal and state agencies and other private and public sector stakeholders. The final recommendations were outlined as part of a 30-page document published on Nov. 16 and include four major goals. They call for restoring and protecting salmon habitat and their food sources, quelling intrusive noise from boat traffic, reducing the orca’s exposure to residual toxins found in storm runoff and securing revenue to implement the actions.
Several work groups have met since the spring to identify both urgent and long-term strategies, all of which Inslee will consider as part of his budget and priorities in the next legislative session.
Islander Amy Carey, executive director of Sound Action and a member of the task force’s prey availability work group, said that while she and many of her colleagues were unsatisfied with several of the final recommendations — amid mounting frustration with the review process — there was a mutual appreciation for leadership on the issues.
“I think everybody really holds a lot of respect and admiration for Gov. Inslee and what he is trying to do, to really put us on a firm roadmap for orca recovery with the goal of bold action,” she said.
The prey availability work group considered specific responses to the crisis, such as modifying or removing dams in the Columbia and Snake Rivers, increasing hatchery salmon numbers, protecting habitat to support them while sustaining overall juvenile salmon migration and measuring the potential impacts of predation on chinook. But similar to her feelings about the task force’s first draft recommendations, Carey said that some of the final proposals were amended significantly or not followed through.
For example, she noted that under the finalized recommendations as written, local permits for construction of residential bulkheads, or shoreline armoring, must be issued prior to project approval from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). The change would be reflected in the state hydraulic code, which was written to protect fish life.
Carey said this was not discussed by the workgroup and would likely face opposition from other environmental advocates.
Implementing the recommendations, she said, may put the WDFW at odds with local entities, which may have weaker permitting provisions than the agency, thereby making it difficult for the agency to regulate in its full capacity. The result would be an inadvertent weakening of both the WDFW’s authority and the effectiveness of the state hydraulic code.
“It’s a law that we watchdog, and we watchdog it because it’s such a strong tool if used appropriately. Something like that, which was not brought up, [which was] not based in public comment, presents what could be a weakening of the hydraulic code,” she said.
Other recommendations in the final document, she said, were not vetted by all workgroup members or the public, or were added at the last minute, such as the recommendation for a three to five-year moratorium on viewing the southern residents during whale watching excursions.
Carey said she was hopeful for an opportunity in the coming months to re-examine the motions, encouraged by language in the document suggesting there would be room for improvement. She reaffirmed the commitment of her fellow work group members to use their voices and knowledge base to advance corrective actions and the application of current laws.
“Both as a working group member and as Sound Action,” she said, “clearly we’re going to be focusing with eyes ahead in the next legislative sessions.”
Greg Rabourn, who is responsible for safeguarding habitat on Vashon and Maury Islands as the watershed steward for King County, is optimistic that shoreline restoration work recommended by the task force would provide direct relief for the orcas.
“Our efforts to remove shoreline armoring are right in line with the recommendations of the task force to improve the numbers of chinook salmon and forage fish that chinook salmon eat,” he said. “It’s all about boosting the food source — what we’re working on is improving the food supply for orca.”
According to Rabourn, since 2010 the county has removed 1,400 feet of land armoring on the shores of Vashon-Maury Island, and plans are underway to remove a 210 foot-long bulkhead near the Dockton Park marina within the next two years. But he said that those projects take time, as does writing grants to support them, and funding sources are difficult to secure in a timely manner. In the meantime, he said that the onus is on the public to make changes of their own.
“If we’re going to recover the species, we’ve also going to need efforts of property owners who are able to make [their own] shoreline enhancements to go ahead and do that.”
Islander Tag Gornall, a retired marine mammal veterinarian who belongs to several green organizations on Vashon, said that it will take more than quick, shallow fixes or more empty promises to make a difference.
“The sad part is that people didn’t become aware of what they were doing to Puget Sound until things started dying on the surface, and we have neglected that [which is] below the waterline for decades, if not more than that,” he said. “We operated on the premise that the solution to pollution was dilution.”
He was talking about the effects of everyday habits and routines, all of which have a devastating impact at a near-microscopic level. The damage, he said, is felt all the way up the food web to the top predators — the southern residents.
“It’s the things we do with our vehicles, with our yards, with our gardens that leach into Puget Sound,” he said. “It does not do good things when it gets there.”
Gornall said he often wears a T-shirt with a breaching orca on it, and in print beneath it, a message that reads “Save the Plankton.” He said people often ask him what it means.
“If you don’t pay attention to what we’re doing to plankton, you’re never going to save a whale.”
Plankton, at the base of the food web, he explained, sustain forage fish, which in turn feed the salmon. But they have died off in vast numbers, said Gornall, due to changes in temperature and the presence of foreign substances. Marine mammals, he added, do not have the tolerance for pesticides such as organophosphates, which enter the Columbia and Snake Rivers by way of industrial farming and pose a grave risk to salmon, which can accumulate the toxins in their fat content — and deliver them to the orcas.
“Taking down the dams, you’d be basically lancing an abscess. You got to deal with the materials behind the dam,” he said. “These things have got to be really looked at and calculated before that effort is simply approached, or it’s going to explode on you.”
One recommendation of the task force assigns the Washing Department of Ecology with devising a list of chemicals of emerging concern, due to the legislature next March. The list would include pesticides and pharmaceuticals and would be prioritized for possible actions at a later time. But Gornall believes more investment is required, adding that too few recognize the scope of the contaminant problem.
An appreciation for water quality, he said, will be the difference between life and death for the orcas and the generations after his, who will have the burden of finding workable solutions for increasingly complicated problems in order to preserve all life on earth.
“You have to have hope,” he said. “You’ve got to have it or we’re gone.”