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Orca recovery task force urges partial whale-watching moratorium, study of dam removal

Gov. Jay Inslee’s task force on southern resident orca recovery released its first recommendations Friday to help Puget Sound’s orcas, on the brink of extinction.

From dam teardowns to a temporary moratorium on whale watching of southern residents by any boat, a governor’s task force on orca recovery released its first round of recommendations Friday.

Task force members said at a news conference at the Seattle Aquarium that bold action is needed to save the critically endangered population of killer whales from extinction. Only 74 southern resident orcas remain.

The recommendation will depend on significant new funding from the state Legislature as well as new legislation to take effect, so the wish list is a long way from becoming reality for the whales.

[Hostile Waters: Orcas thrive in a land to the north. Why are Puget Sound’s dying?]

Among the biggest changes called for is a 3-to-5 year moratorium on whale watching by any boat of the southern residents to provide quieter waters for them.

Some of the most controversial issues considered by the task force were put off, like the breaching of the Lower Snake River dams.

The busting of those dams — to support bigger returns of chinook salmon, orcas primary food — was the most broadly supported ask put forth in public comments to Gov. Jay Inslee’s task force.

The task force demurred, putting the issue to a study committee.

The task force also called for better enforcement of existing regulations to protect the whales.

A total of 36 recommendation after six months of work are intended to increase chinook abundance, decrease noise from vessels and reduce exposure of orcas and the salmon they eat to contaminants.

The task force also called for increasing spill of water through the Columbia and Snake River dams, widely regarded by scientists as one of the best early action steps that can be taken to help boost salmon survival.

The task force also supported funding to determine how to re-establish fish passage above the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River and on the Tacoma Water Diversion, Howard Hanson and Mud Mountain Dams in Puget Sound.

Boosts in hatchery production were also supported by the task force, where that doesn’t impede wild chinook recovery.

“The orca urged us on … to achieve what many said was impossible,” said task force co-chair Stephanie Solien of the task force’s effort.

Among the recommendations that will require legislative action are a half-mile go-slow zone around all southern residents, reducing vessel speeds to 7 knots or less and increase the distance kept from the whales to 400 yards from 200.

The moratorium on whale watching by all boats of the southern residents also will require legislation. The moratorium, already opposed by whale-watch representatives on the task force, promises to be a fight in Olympia, if it gets that far.


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