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Plans being developed to save both orcas and Chinook salmon

By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute

A Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. The Southern Residents are an endangered population of fish-eating killer whales. Credit: NOAA
A Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. The Southern Residents are an endangered population of fish-eating killer whales. Credit: NOAA

Actions that could save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction have been placed on a fast track by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the Puget Sound Partnership, which operates under a legal mandate to restore the health of Puget Sound.

Hand in hand with an intensified effort to save the whales comes a revised strategy to reverse the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon, the primary food supply for the endangered orcas.

In a special meeting Wednesday, the Puget Sound Leadership Council committed itself in a formal resolution to “both accelerate and amplify” efforts to recover Chinook runs on behalf of the orcas while meeting treaty obligations to native tribes.

The Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — also approved a list of “regional priorities,” which will direct specific projects to protect and restore Puget Sound over the next four years. The priorities include recommendations for “bold actions” for Chinook recovery developed by Puget Sound tribes and later approved by the multi-jurisdictional Salmon Recovery Council.

The Leadership Council approved a few changes to the draft priorities, such as eliminating a controversial proposal dealing with water rights and streamflows. The original language from the tribes would favor water in streams to help salmon over water rights for new wells — essentially the same issue that stirred up a legislative battle following the controversial Hirst decision by the State Supreme Court.

Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council, said the resolution on orcas approved Wednesday is “one small action” to be followed by a major initiative from the governor, who he described as “shocked and alarmed” by recent reports highlighting the growing risk of extinction for the Southern Resident killer whales.

Governor’s plan

The governor’s plan of action will address the major risks to orcas, including the lack of Chinook salmon, the number of ships and boats that produce excessive noise and disrupt the orca’s feeding efforts, toxic pollutants that can contribute to their poor health, and other concerns, Manning said.

“It will be issued in short order,” he said, “and we are excited to be part of what will be a strong action-oriented approach from the governor. Our job is to restore and protect Puget Sound. If we lose the Southern Resident orcas, we will have failed in our job, and we have no intention of doing that.”

During the meeting, held via telephone conference call, Jim Waddell, a retired Army Corps of Engineers employee, reiterated his position that breaching dams on the Snake River would be the quickest way to provide more Chinook salmon for the orcas. The whales feed at times off the mouth of the Columbia River.

Jerry Joyce, who served on a marine mammal advisory committee for the Partnership, said the key is to move quickly to address the known threats to killer whales and perhaps even some speculative threats before it is too late.

“If we wait for scientific certainty, we will have no whales left to protect,” he said.

Regional priorities approved Wednesday will provide ideas and guidance to agencies, nonprofit groups and others that wish to submit proposals to improve the Puget Sound ecosystem. The priorities grew out of 10 implementation strategies focused on restoring various ecological attributes, including freshwater quality, shellfish beds and toxic chemicals in fish.

Nearly 40 ideas have been proposed to implement the strategy for rebuilding Chinook runs, widely believed to be a critical step in the recovery of the orca population. The Chinook implementation strategy and regional priorities underwent an extensive review involving technical teams, tribal officials and the Salmon Recovery Council. The SRC includes representatives of federal, state and local governments, tribes and watershed councils, along with business and environmental groups.

Discussion of Hirst ruling

Language approved by the Leadership Council acknowledges the need to restore streamflows but stays away from the issue of water rights.

That may have cost the Leadership Council a vote from Council Member Russ Hepfer, a tribal official with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Hepfer said denying permits for water withdrawals should be a “no-brainer” when the effect would be to harm salmon runs.

Manning said he knows it will be necessary to tackle “the most difficult problems” — including adequate streamflows. But the Leadership Council must balance many interests. As for the Hirst ruling, Manning said a plan is being developed to restore streamflows where necessary without affecting water rights or new individual wells.

If successful, the plan could clear a legislative logjam that has blocked passage of the state’s capital budget this year. Republican senators refused to approve the budget without a legislative response to the Hirst court ruling. As a result, the budget remains in limbo.

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.
Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Meanwhile, a major focus of the Chinook Implementation Strategy is to improve salmon habitat through various means — from scientific studies to improved regulations to incentives for property owners.

The regional priorities approved Wednesday also include a provision to develop management options for controlling seals and sea lions, which are known to eat both juvenile and adult Chinook throughout Puget Sound.

Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.