Today, several bills that support Gov. Jay Inslee's proposal to save Southern Resident orcas were introduced in the state Legislature. Inslee announced an unprecedented effort last month to restore Washington's orca and Chinook salmon populations.
"Without taking bold actions and drastically changing human impact to our environment, our beloved orcas may not survive," Inslee said. "Now is the time to act to save these magnificent creatures. If we ignore our duty to save them, we will lose a piece of our hearts and of Washington's cultural identity. As the orca goes, so go we."
Inslee's legislation addresses three key actions to save orcas: restoring and protecting habitat, increasing oil safety and reducing vessel noise and disturbance.
Increasing habitat and forage fish
House Bill 1579 and Senate Bill 5580 would increase habitat for Chinook salmon and other forage fish. These bills implement a major goal of Inslee's Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, to increase Chinook salmon abundance by protecting their habitat and prey. Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon and Sen. Christine Rolfes are the primary sponsors of these bills.
"Endangered Southern Resident killer whales and Chinook salmon are counting on legislators to step up and better protect habitat throughout our state," Fitzgibbon said. "Habitat continues to be lost to irresponsible development, but these modest, common-sense, science-based protections can ensure that people, fish and orcas can coexist and thrive in our beautiful state."
Improving safety of oil transportation
House Bill 1578 and Senate Bill 5578 would reduce threats to Southern Resident orcas by improving the safety of oil transportation. Rep. Debra Lekanoff and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege are the primary sponsors of these bills.
“The Salish Sea is the highway for industry to transport millions of gallons of oil and cargo, and we know it is not a matter of if, but a matter of when we face one of the most devastating accidents in Washington history. The sea is the home to our precious orca population which is reaching such low numbers, it is critically important lawmakers take action now to protect their population and their home,” Lekanoff said. “We don’t get a second chance if there is a spill, so the time to act is now.”
“I have long been a champion of protecting our coastlines and waters from oil spills," Van De Wege said about the legislation. "Little can compare to the immense damage a catastrophic oil spill would cause to our environment and economy as well as our precious orca population. The legislation aims to protect all of these.”
Reducing vessel noise and disturbance
House Bill 1580 and Senate Bill 5577 would protect Southern Resident orcas from vessel noise and disturbance. The bills would require vessels to stay at least 400 yards away from Southern Resident orcas and report vessels they witness in violation of the limit. It would also require vessels to travel under seven knots within one-half nautical mile of the whales. The legislation would create no-go and go-slow zones around the whales to protect them. Rep. Brian Blake and Sen. Rolfes are the primary sponsors of these bills.
“We know noise levels interfere and can even impede an orca’s ability to communicate and find food, so giving orcas space and quieting the waters is necessary. We can take steps to ensure that boats cause the least disturbance, while still maintaining whale-watching and commercial maritime activity," Blake said. "The thing is, we don’t have a choice here. We either push forth a collaborative effort to protect the whales or there won’t be any whales to watch.”
Background: Southern Resident Orca Whale Recovery