Orca task force celebrates new calf with renewed determination

PUYALLUP, Wash. -- On Monday's orca task force meeting, members celebrated the news of a brand new southern resident calf in J pod.

Late last week, Canadian researchers spotted the calf for the first time. Its birth brings the entire population of critically-endangered orcas to 76.

"That in itself gives us hope and more determination to make sure that the work that remains, that we have to do, is very focused and targeted on what these orca need to survive," task force co-chair Stephanie Solien said.

Beyond the birth of a new calf, the group celebrated two more achievements at the meeting: Five new state laws and $1.1 billion in the state budget aimed at orca and salmon recovery.

Those actions were based on the group's 36 recommendations from last year, but they acknowledged Monday that several fell through the cracks this past legislative session.

"This will be an opportunity for us to be able to take stock of the actions and the recommendations, the 36 recommendations, that we made," task force co-chair Les Purce said of the meeting.

During it, Washington tribes emphasized the urgency.

"We have to have a more crisis-oriented group of folks that are speaking to our legislators and telling them why this action is important," said GI James, who works with Lummi Nation's natural resources division. "If we don't do it, these resources will go extinct."

In so-called fishbowl discussions, the big focus was on the continued lack of funding for fish recovery.

"If we don't put fish into the mouths of these whales, we are not going to succeed," said Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society.

"We have a ton of work to do and I think it's going to require a dedicated funding source for habitat recovery," added Jacques White of Long Live the Kings.

"I think the orcas have presented an opportunity for us to convey a message and urgency around funding," said Robb Krehbiel of Defenders of Wildlife. "They are doing so much more -- through the tragedy that we see unfolding in the Sound with them -- to raise awareness about the plight of salmon, the plight of people here in Washington, than any of us have been able to do before."

Krehbiel, who serves on the task force prey working group, also advocated for a sustained source of funding for at least a decade. When asked how much money is needed for salmon recovery, he bluntly replied, "Billions."

On top of prey concerns, the task force also identified recommendations related to vessels and contaminants that did not make a lot of headway this past year.

Part of the task force's work in its second year will be deciding which recommendations they will continue to push forward before the process sunsets in the fall of 2019.

The group is also looking to address ways to curb long-term threats of climate change and population growth.