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Southern resident killer whale breaching. Image courtesy of NOAA

Orca task force releases recommendations

By Jeff Rice

The governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force released its final report and recommendations today, focusing on three key threats to Puget Sound’s endangered orcas: Lack of food, disturbance from noise and vessel traffic, and toxic contaminants. In all, the report makes 36 recommendations for recovering the fast-declining orca population, which now stands at 74 animals.

“The extinction of these orcas would be an unacceptable loss,” reads the report, which identifies a wide variety of potential actions that will require extensive funding and long-term commitment on the part of state and federal agencies. The task force met six times between May and November of this year and received more than 18,000 comments from the public.

Of the 36 recommendations, the first and most extensive is the improvement of habitat for Chinook salmon, the orcas’ primary source of food, including habitat acquisition and additional funding in support of ongoing restoration efforts. The report also calls for an increase in the production of hatchery Chinook and recommends establishing “a stakeholder process to discuss potential breaching or removal of the lower Snake River Dams” seen as a barrier to Chinook spawning. Other measures would include bolstering forage fish populations, which Chinook eat in abundance. Several of the recommendations, such as improved enforcement of habitat protection would require legislative action.

Among the potentially sensitive issues addressed by the report are new studies showing high predation of juvenile Chinook salmon by seals and sea lions, in particular Puget Sound’s  booming harbor seal population. The report recommends a study to determine the potential impact of pinniped predation on Chinook to “evaluate potential management actions” such as the removal of some animals or the altering of select haul out sites.

Task force members voted 33 to 1 to approve the recommendations, with six members abstaining and seven absent from the vote. The lone dissenting vote was cast by a representative on behalf of the Pacific Whale Watch Association which objected to the task force’s recommendations to curtail commercial whale watching for the next 3 to 5 years.

“The association feels strongly that Recommendation 28 restricting viewing on the Southern Residents was not properly vetted and the implementation will lead to unintended consequences,” the Pacific Whale Watching Association wrote in a statement. “PWWA is working in partnership with the scientific community to develop a science-based vessel management plan to mitigate risk of harm to the Southern Residents.”

Many of the threats listed in the report are well-known, such as the impacts of toxic chemicals including PCBs and PBDEs that accumulate in Chinook and have led to a high incidence of miscarriages among southern resident orcas [for more on this subject, read our story in Salish Sea Currents, “For declining orcas, food is fate”]. The task force is encouraging  legislative action in 2019 “for a program that incentivizes the accelerated removal of primary legacy sources of PCBs, PAHs, PBDEs and per and polyfluoroalkyl substances present in the built environment in the central Puget Sound.” It also calls for improvements in the effectiveness and enforcement of permits for the discharge of toxic chemicals harmful to orcas.

The task force is expected to continue its work into 2019 and will prepare a follow-up document assessing its progress by October 1, 2019.