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Thursday, September 28, 2023
Sept. 28, 2023

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In Our View: Save the Killer Whales

State must act urgently to prevent loss of struggling southern resident orcas

The Columbian
Published:

The scene was excruciating, poignantly highlighting the plight of Washington’s southern resident orcas.

For more than two weeks in August, a mother carried her dead calf on her head as she swam the waters in and near Puget Sound. The image lent urgency to the work of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force that already had been convened by Gov. Jay Inslee. Now, that task force has issued an initial report of 36 recommendations for preserving an orca population that is a Washington icon.

Among the suggestions:

• Increased water spill over dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers in an effort to improve the return of salmon that provide the bulk of the orcas’ diet;

• A moratorium on whale-watching boats and restrictions on other private boats near the whales;

• Increased funding for conservation programs, estuary enhancements and the removal of barriers such as stream culverts that block salmon;

• And increased production of hatchery salmon.

In the past two decades, the population of the southern resident orcas has declined from 98 to 74, and their plight is readily evident. In addition to the mourning mother this past summer, an emaciated female dropped out of sight despite human efforts to feed and medicate her. And there has not been a successful birth in the past three years.

Marine scientists have identified several reasons for the decline. Among them: A diminishing food supply caused by a reduction in salmon runs; increased pollution in the killer whales’ home waters; and noise and disturbances from shipping and recreational boating. The 50-person task force included marine biologists; lawmakers; and representatives from environmental, agricultural, tribal and other interests.

Notably, the task force did not recommend removal of hydroelectric dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers. Such a suggestion often is favored by environmental groups in an effort to increase salmon runs, but should be viewed as an extreme measure of last resort. Breaching major dams would be devastating to Eastern Washington farmers who rely on irrigation provided by the dams — and those of us who rely on the farmers. It also would stymie the barging of crops down the rivers to ports in Western Washington and limit the availability of hydroelectric power.

Agricultural interests already are balking at the prospect of increased spillage and, therefore, less water for irrigation. Tom Davis of the Washington Farm Bureau told The Capital Press: “We’re concerned this is going to cast a wide net and pull in ag where it doesn’t belong.” Concern is understandable, but unlike the breaching of dams, increased spillage can easily be reversed if it proves to be ineffective.

Other advocates have pushed back against the recommendation for a moratorium on whale-watching boats, noting the role they play in Washington’s tourism industry. In response, we point out that if there are no whales to watch, that sector of the industry disappears for good.

The next step is for the Legislature to consider the recommendations and move forward on solutions. While that process inevitably will lead to some disagreements, we think all Washington residents can agree on one thing: A public display of mourning by an orca mother tells us that solutions are necessary.

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