Gov. Inslee proposes $1.1 billion budget to aid Puget Sound orcas

December 13, 2018

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced his proposals for the state’s 2019-21 budget Thursday, and among the list of priorities is a $1.1 billion investment in the region’s orca population.

“We share so much with the orcas, we share about the same body temperature, we share about the same heart rate, we share close familial bonds and we share the need to defeat environmental degradation,” Inslee said. “When we save the orcas from toxins, when we save them from climate change, when we save them from pollution — we save ourselves.”

The governor’s proposal targets the lack of prey — Chinook salmon — that orcas rely on. It also addresses pollutants, vessel traffic, and the potential of breaching the lower four dams on the Snake River. The proposal follows up on task force recommendations released earlier this year which Inslee says he is embracing. It also follows the effort to save one ailing orca and the deaths of newborn calves over the past year that garnered many headlines.

The governor’s budget proposal states:

Besides helping orcas, these investments will have significant benefits for the region’s entire ecosystem and complement efforts to recover salmon, tackle climate change, improve water quality and more. These investments are based on actions most likely to yield strong benefits for Southern Residents orcas over the short term while setting up a sustainable, data-driven path for longer-term efforts.

Proposed funding includes:

-$363 million for salmon recovery.

-$296 million for the Washington State Department of Transportation to correct fish passage barriers.

-$6.2 million for greater enforcement with habitat protection laws.

-$75.7 million for the state’s hatchery system.

-$4.7 million to collect pinniped (sea lion) population information and to develop management actions.

-$524,000 to examine issues related to increasing Chinook population by reestablishing salmon runs above Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River.

-$117 million to covert two of the state’s ferries (Jumbo Mark II models) to hybrid-electric ferries (Inslee expects this to save the state $7 million in annual fuel costs).

Breaching the lower four Snake River dams is also mentioned in the proposal, which is part of a current federal process. Inslee wants to put $750,000 toward a task force to study the impacts and mitigation costs of such an action.

-Also included in the budget are proposed actions:

-A temporary three-year ban on all whale watching of Southern Resident orca, to be reviewed afterward to assess its effectiveness.

-$1.1 million for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to enforce the whale watching suspension.

-Increasing the distance between marine vessels and orcas to 400 yards, also a “go slow” zone within half a mile of orcas.

-Increased funding for toxic cleanups, including $3 million for local control programs; $4.2 million to speed up cleanups; $3.5 million to remove creosote structures; $57.8 million to clean up toxic sites; $51 million to reduce stormwater, $32 million to address contaminants from wastewater systems.

-Millions in funding for scientific support of the orca recovery effort.

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Washington governor proposes major steps to prevent killer whales going extinct

December 13, 2018

With scientists warning that the Northwest’s beloved killer whales are on the brink of extinction, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced dramatic plans Thursday to help the population recover — including $1.1 billion in spending and a partial whale-watching ban.

“We are undertaking a herculean effort to save these iconic creatures,” Inslee said in a prepared statement. “It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state.”

Starved by a dearth of salmon, poisoned by contaminants, and buffeted by vessel noise that hinders their hunting and communication, the orcas that live in the waters between Washington state and Canada’s Vancouver Island have failed to reproduce successfully in the past three years. One grieving whale carried her dead calf on her head for 17 days last summer in an apparent effort to revive it.

There are 74 left in the population, the lowest number since the 1970s, when hundreds of orcas were captured in the region and more than 50 were kept for aquarium display.

Inslee, who is mulling a Democratic presidential run in 2020, detailed the plans as part of his announcement of his priorities for the 2019-2021 state budget. The money would go toward protecting and restoring habitat for salmon, especially chinook, the orcas’ favored prey; boosting production from salmon hatcheries; storm-water cleanup; and quieting vessel traffic.

Nearly $300 million would go toward complying with a court order that requires the state to replace culverts that block the path of migrating salmon.

Money would also support developing plans to move or kill seals and sea lions that feast on Columbia River salmon where they get blocked by dams or other structures, and changing state water quality standards to allow more water to be spilled over dams, helping young salmon reach the ocean.

Inslee called for a new capital gains tax and an increase in business taxes to help cover the tab.

The governor also said he intends to ban commercial whale-watching of the local endangered orcas — known as the southern residents — for three years. He stressed that whale-watching will be allowed for other whales in Washington waters, including nonresident orcas that pass through, and that the state would undertake efforts to promote the industry to offset any lost business.

Inslee said he intended to permanently double the size of the “no-go zone” for vessels around orcas to 400 yards (365 meters) and create a “go slow zone” with reduced speed limits within a half-mile (926 meters). The Department of Fish and Wildlife would get $1.1 million for public education and enforcement.

His plans call for converting two state ferries to quieter electric hybrids and building two others as hybrids.

In a written statement, the Pacific Whale Watch Association did not directly address the proposed ban on whale watching. It said it is committed to protecting the whales and that it supports “science-based actions that will best support the future of these whales, including go-slow zones aimed at quieting the waters.”

“Responsible ecotourism is a healthy and critical piece of conservation and education,” the association said.

The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity has sued the federal government for not doing more to protect the full range of the orcas along the West Coast. Catherine Kilduff, the group’s attorney, called Inslee’s plans to reduce vessel noise a good first step.

But, as other environmentalists have done, Kilduff stressed that removing four major dams along the Snake River is essential for the recovery of salmon — and thus for the whales.

A federal court has already ordered the government to consider breaching the dams. Inslee’s proposal includes having a task force examine the implications of that — including whether irrigation, transportation and electricity provided by the dams could be offset, such as by shipping goods by truck or by rail or by boosting wind or solar power generation.

Republican U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, who represent Eastern Washington, said in a written statement Thursday that breaching the Snake River dams is out of the question.

“The people of Eastern Washington whose livelihoods depend on these dams should not be collateral damage for anyone’s presidential ambitions,” they said.

Source: NY Daily

Study: Distance restrictions on orcas haven’t hurt tourism

December 26, 2017

Restrictions limiting boats from getting too close to endangered southern resident killer whales have not harmed the whale-watching industry, according to a new federal study.

The study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicated that whale-watching tourism continues to grow even with the federal restrictions that require vessels to stay at least 200 yards (182 meters) from the orcas in Washington’s Puget Sound, The Seattle Times reported .

Lack of food, environmental contamination and boat noise are the primary threats to the survival of Puget Sound orcas, according to the agency. The population of southern resident whales is down to 76 — the lowest in 30 years.

Noise from boats can disturb orcas, causing them to spend less time looking for food and more time traveling, according to researchers. The restrictions enacted in 2011 were aimed at reducing the stress placed on the orcas from noise.

Departing from more than 20 locations on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, about 400,000 people take commercial tour boats to watch whales each year, said Michael Harris, former executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

When boats enforcing the restrictions are on the water, the study found the federal rules to be more effective with fewer violations by recreational vessels.

Washington Sen. Kevin Ranker said he plans to introduce legislation to fund an enforcement boat and two state Department of Fish and Wildlife officers to be on the water five days a week during peak whale-watching season. The Democratic senator said to preserve whale watching, it requires preserving the whales.

“We have to protect the orca whale from our stupidity,” Ranker said.


Tour boat companies react to new rules to protect B.C.’s killer whales

October 28, 2017

Tour boat operators in B.C. are reacting to the federal government’s planned measures to protect the province’s endangered resident killer whale population off of B.C.’s southern coast.

Come spring, large ships and tour boats will have to keep 200 metres away from the whales at all times, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced in Ottawa on Thursday.

There are only 78 remaining southern resident killer whales living in the Salish Sea, a large area of coastal waterways that extends from the southern coast of B.C. to the northern coast of Washington state. The mammals’ population has been threatened by dwindling levels of Chinook salmon, their main food source, and interference from nearby boats.

Misty MacDuffee, a biologist and program director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, told CTV Vancouver Island News that noise and disturbance from passing vessels impairs the whales’ ability to successfully feed.

“This population has a 25 per cent chance of extinction in the next 100 years,” MacDuffee warned on Friday.

Even though the regulations won’t come into effect until the spring, LeBlanc asked tour boat operators to voluntarily abide by the new rules immediately.

Prince of Whales, the largest whale-watching company in the province, told CTV Vancouver Island News that they’re pleased the government is taking steps to protect the long-term survival of killer whales with measures the industry has been considering already for months.

Despite the enthusiasm by Prince of Whales, others in the industry have expressed concern about how the new regulations will impact their business.

“You can imagine going on a football field and seeing a 6” tall dorsal fin at 100 metres [away] and then you double that distance, that is going to have some sort of impact, I would suggest, on the customers’ experience overall,” Brett Soberg of Eagle Wing Tours said.

Although Washington state already has a strict law in place that requires boats to keep nearly 200 metres away from the whales, Canada has only had a guideline suggesting operators stay 100-metres away from the mammals until now.

“It gives the whales a little bit more breathing room,” MacDuffee explained.

In addition to the regulations concerning killer whales, boats will also have to remain 100 metres away from all marine mammals across Canada, LeBlanc said. The minister said the measures are the first in a series of new policies that will be introduced in the coming months to protect the country’s marine life.

Source: ctv

To avoid extinction, orcas need more chinook and less noise

October 27, 2017

According to a new study, southern-resident killer whales could vanish within a century.

Orca whales are on a path to extinction within a century unless they get a big increase of chinook salmon to eat, and significantly quieter seas in which to find their food, a new study has found.

The research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, evaluated the relative importance of known threats to the survival of southern-resident killer whales, the salmon-eating whales that frequent Puget Sound.

An international team of scientists reviewed 40 years of data and the threats of lack of food, pollutants and excessive noise under different future scenarios.

A clear finding emerged: Lack of food, specifically chinook salmon, is the orcas’ biggest threat to long-term survival, so much so that a 30 percent increase in chinook above average levels is needed to recover the orca population. That increase could be cut to 15 percent if vessel noise also is reduced by half.

Otherwise, the populations will continue to decline and there is a 25 percent chance the whales will be lost within 100 years, the scientists found.

The findings reflect the unique biology of southern-resident killer whales, which insist on targeting chinook salmon for their diet, virtually to the exclusion of other prey. They also use echolocation — sound — to find their food.

Lower abundance of salmon in a sea noisy from vessel traffic means the whales must forage longer to find their food — even as chinook populations also are declining. And if they can’t get enough to eat they burn their own fat, laden with chemicals stored in their tissue, absorbed from pollutants in the waters of the Salish Sea.

The linked nature of the threats to orcas means progress must be made on all three fronts, noted Rob Williams, an author on the paper based at Oceans Initiative in Seattle, a nonprofit scientific research firm.

The orcas already are in a 30-year population low, with just 76 animals in the J, K and L pods.

“The very first thing we should be doing is holding the line, and not increasing threats and harms that are already there, clearly we don’t want to be adding to the problem,” said Paul Paquet of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation in Sydney, B.C., a lead author on the paper.

“There is an urgency here that is not well-appreciated; they are certainly in jeopardy,” he said of the orcas. “There is no doubt about that.”

Bob Lacy, a conservation biologist with the Chicago Zoological Society, and another lead author on the paper, said the southern residents are “just holding on; the population is too fragile to withstand any increased threats.

“It is not a cheerful story, but it is a wake-up call.”

Lynne Barre, Seattle branch chief of the Protected Resources Division at NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, said the agency is well aware of the orcas’ predicament, as their population — at the lowest numbers since the 1980s — continues to drop. They are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

“We are moving in the wrong direction,” Barre said. The agency is looking for partners at every level — local, state, federal and across the border in Canada, to ease threats to orca survival she said.

It’s not a problem orcas might just fix on their own by turning to other prey.

While so-called transient killer whales in Canada feast on marine mammals, especially seals, the southern residents will not switch from chinook — the most calories for the hunting effort of any salmon — even when the region’s most prized fish is scarce.

“It seems to be cultural, this is what they learned from their mothers, they live in tight family groups and it makes them unique and very special, but it might be a downfall as well,” Barre said.

Chinook are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act both in the Columbia River and in Puget Sound. Orcas forage for chinook at the mouth of the Columbia in the early spring and again in Puget Sound in the summer, especially on the west side of San Juan Island.

Scientists have been studying the whales’ foraging behavior and can see that vessel traffic affects it, she noted.

The agency is considering a proposed change in the critical habitat protected for the whales to include the West Coast all the way to the San Francisco Bay Area, to reflect what scientists are learning about how far the orcas travel for their food, Barre said.

Also under review is a protection zone that extends three-quarters of a mile offshore of San Juan Island from Mitchell Point in the north to Cattle Point in the south.

All motorized vessels would be excluded from the zone to give the whales a refuge from their noise.

The proposal from Orca Relief Citizens Alliance and other conservation groups, under review by NOAA since January, received more than 1,000 comments, including suggestions of new approaches to the problem.

James Unsworth, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, even suggested that instead of a fixed protection zone, what is needed is a floating go-slow bubble extending 1,000 yards around every orca as it travels anywhere in Washington’s inner marine waters. Within the bubble, vessel speeds would be restricted to not more than 7 knots on the water.

That would be a big increase in the 200-yard, no-approach zone around every orca imposed by NOAA in 2011.

Slower travel speeds help orcas by quieting vessel traffic. Some change is already underway on a voluntary basis.

The Port of Vancouver, B.C., in a pilot program last summer, asked ships to cut their speed to 11 knots — a reduction to nearly half speed for some vessels — to reduce noise levels in a 16-mile-long area of the orcas’ prime feeding ground. More than 61 percent of ships using Haro Strait voluntarily participated.

It’s the kind of measure that perhaps could buy the whales some time and take the pressure off a population struggling to survive, Williams said.

“This is a really small population that is teetering.” Not because of some catastrophe, such as an oil spill, he noted, but just because of what their environment has become. “We are looking at their daily lives.”

Source: Herald

Death by loneliness: Male killer whales are three times more likely to die if they are socially isolated

October 24, 2017

  • The effect was much stronger when food was scarce and didn’t affect females 
  • This is because males are larger and need more support from the group to eat
  • Study looked at Southern Resident orcas, a critically endangered population
  • The research highlights the importance of social bonds to male killer whales

Male killer whales are more likely to die if they are not at the centre of their social group, new research has found.

Scientists showed that the most socially isolated males were three times more likely to die in any given year than those in the ‘most central social positions’.

The effect was much stronger in years where food was scarce and didn’t affect females, possibly because males are larger and need more support from the group to eat enough.

The findings come from a study of Southern Resident killer whales, a critically endangered population in the Pacific Ocean that numbers just 76.

The research was conducted by scientists from Exeter and York Universities, and from the US Centre for Whale Research in Washington.

Study lead author Dr Samuel Ellis, of Exeter University, said: ‘This research highlights the importance of social bonds to male killer whales, and shows that males that are less socially connected are more likely to die when times are hard.

‘Killer whales are highly cooperative, and males at the centre of a social group are likely to have better access to social information and food-sharing opportunities.’ 

Southern Residents were frequently taken into captivity in the 1960s and 70s, and the team says human activity now poses an even greater threat to their survival.

Ken Balcomb, of the Centre for Whale Research, said: ‘Salmon is the main food for these whales, and stocks have been driven down by overfishing and the blocking of spawning grounds by damming rivers.

‘These factors make it all the more important to understand the drivers of survival and mortality among these whales.’

Study co-author Dr Dan Franks, of York University, said: ‘Our research shows the importance of considering social positions and family ties in understanding and predicting the future of endangered populations.’

Previous research has shown sociability has an effect on human life expectancy, but this is the first study to show that social position across the lifespan can predict survival in non-human animals.

Study senior author Professor Darren Croft, of the Exeter University, said: ‘These whales have been studied for more than 40 years and they are all recognisable by unique markings.

‘By seeing which whales regularly swam together across a year and across multiple years, we started to understand a network of what in humans we would call friendships.

‘In terms of this research, a central social position meant whales either having many individual connections or being the connection between two or more groups.’

Professor Croft added: ‘On a broad scale, research like this examines the fundamental question of why social relationships and friendships have evolved.’

Source: Daily

Puget Sound’s Southern Resident Orca Population Drops To 30-Year Low

September 27, 2017

Orca researchers and conservationists are urging more steps to protect Puget Sound’s endangered southern resident killer whales. The push comes in the wake of the death of a 2-year-old male orca known as J52.

The death, which researchers say was caused by malnutrition, brought the population to a 30-year low.

J52 is the seventh orca to die this year. That’s the biggest year-to-year decline ever recorded. The decline comes less than two years after a killer whale baby boom had researchers feeling optimistic about orcas’ prospects for survival in Puget Sound.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which manages the southern resident orca population, listed them as one of eight species most at risk of extinction in a 2015 report to Congress.

“We’re going to keep sliding down unless we take some immediate action to improve the situation for these whales,” says Robb Krehbiel, the northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

The southern resident orca population is suffering from two main problems: too much pollution, and not enough fish to eat. The two problems compound each other because, when orcas go through periods of starvation, they burn fat and release the toxins stored there into their bodies.

That’s why “the biggest thing that we can do to help our southern resident orcas is restore Chinook salmon runs so that there’s just plenty of fish out there in the water for these guys to eat,” says Krehbiel, with Defenders of Wildlife.

Krehbiel says the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers need to be more fish-friendly; others are calling for the complete removal of the Snake River dams.

At the same time, NOAA is considering expandingthe area designated as the southern resident orcas’ critical habitat some time in 2017.

Krehbiel says it’s not just federal agencies that can do something; everyone can help address the pollution of Puget Sound by being careful about what products they use on their lawns, vehicles, and for hygiene.


Report: Tar Sands Shipping in the Salish Sea is a “Recipe for Disaster”

April 22, 2016

The author of a new report on tar sands shipments says that increased shipments could be the final harpoon in the back of our endangered resident killer whales.

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, odds are you’ve heard of “bomb trains”—the infamous nickname given to long trains carrying volatile shipments of North Dakota crude oil to West Coast refineries. There’s a much smaller chance that you’ve heard anyone talking about “articulated barges.”

The lack of attention given to articulated barges—or, more broadly, tar sands crude oil transport on the Salish Sea—is something that frustrates Fred Felleman, the co-author of a new report about the dangers of tar sands shipments between Canada and refineries in Puget Sound. Felleman, who is aSeattle port commissioner as well as an environmental consultant for Friends of the Earth, says that tar sands shipments in local waters are a “recipe for disaster.”

Over the last year, Felleman and the report’s co-author, Friends of the Earth’s Marcie Keever, have been studying oil shipments in the Salish Sea. They found that while the overall volume of oil on the water has decreased, the number of trips by vessels known as articulated barges (ATBs) has increased. Unlike regular barges, ATBs are tugs that directly attach to the back of other tugs instead of being towed by a cable behind them. ATBs can sometimes also carry more oil than barges, but aren’t treated like oil tankers, which are subject to certain environmental regulations meant to prevent spills.

“From a risk perspective, there’s more shipments of oil on the water, even though the volume of just crude oil is down,” Felleman says.

Unlike the light, sweet crude transported out of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, tar sands crude is heavy—and it sinks. On water, tar sands crude poses asignificant threat to local ecosystems. The dilbit crude can stay in sediments for years, and it’s near impossible to clean up.

If Canada, the Kinder Morgan/Trans Mountain pipeline connects tar sands producers in Alberta to an export terminal in Burnaby, British Columbia. Shipments leave BC and work their way down Washington waterways to the US oil refinery in Tacoma. If the Canadian government allows Kinder Morgan totriple its capacity of the pipeline, as the company has proposed, Felleman predicts a seven-fold increase in tar sands shipments through the Salish Sea.

“We go from one tanker a week to one tanker a day,” Felleman says. “Which to me is the final harpoon in the back of our endangered resident killer whales.”

Last year, the Washington state legislature passed an oil transportation safety bill that originally included a provision for ATBs, but that provision was stripped out by the time the bill became law. Had the provision stuck, ATBs would have to be escorted by other tugs in case something went wrong and an ATB had to be towed to shore.

“We absolutely need to be worried about dirty, sticky tar sands oil coming across our waterways, and we need to act,” Representative Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle) told me last year. “The oil-industry-backed Republican senate refused to negotiate on the marine side.”

If Kinder Morgan is approved, Washington’s waterways will bear the consequences. Felleman stresses that when that time comes, Washingtonians won’t simply be able to blame the Canadians. He says: “We need to engage our senators to make sure that [Canada’s President] Trudeau doesn’t deal us under the table.”