It’s time to save our orcas, state lawmaker says

Time may be running out on local orcas.

“We are now down to a record-low of 76 whales in the population,” state Sen. Kevin Ranker said Tuesday.

That’s why Ranker, D-Orcas Island, is leading the charge to create the Orca Protection Act, an update to the state’s current regulations.

“There are many scientists who are even saying we may be at or near or even potentially below carrying capacity,” he said “Which means there are not enough reproductive males and females in the population to sustain the population.”

Ranker is not alone in this assessment.

“There are concerns that the population may be so low that it can’t recover,” said Ginny Broadhurst, director of the Salish Sea Institute at Western Washington University.

Ranker identified three reasons for the decline.

“One is toxins,” he said. “One is a lack of food. The other, which the data is now conclusive, is noise pollution.”

Ranker said the increase in boat traffic from sight-seeing hasn’t helped.

“It used to be that 10, maybe 15 vessels were chasing these whales on a daily basis,” he said.
“Now on any given day it could be hundreds.”

To counteract these developments, the new legislation would require more room between orcas and boats on the water. It would also provide more funding for patrols and enforcement.

“The major intent of the law is about funding for fish and wildlife to increase their enforcement capability around vessel traffic,” Broadhurst said.

The bill would create a 400-yard buffer around the whales, which is inline with federal guidelines, Ranker said. It would also pay for a minimum of 100 days of patrols by fish and wildlife in the waters where orcas reside.

Ranker says the bill isn’t meant to target whale watchers, but instead to ensure that people will be watching whales for the foreseeable future.

“The whale watch industry is a critical part of our $60 million annual tourism economy,” he said. “So many people come from all over the world to see these majestic creatures.”

The bill would also provide funding to help repopulate the food source for orcas in the Salish Sea, which Broadhurst said will take a coordinated effort to accomplish.

“There’s no one silver bullet that’s going to recover the salmon,” she said. “(It will take) multiple actions on the part of our government and on the part of British Columbia’s government as well.”

That’s something the proposed legislation addresses as well, directing the Salish Sea Institute to coordinate recovery efforts with officials in Canada.

The bill, which Ranker estimates would add about $1 million to the state budget, was well received by lawmakers at a hearing Tuesday in Olympia.

He’s hopeful its passage will help to start rebuilding the orca population in Puget Sound waters. But, he said, it’s likely just a start to that process.

“This is one step out of several steps that we must take,” he said. “But it is a critical early action step where we can actually make a difference today.”