Washington

Fish and Wildlife could see expanded powers under one proposal to help save orcas

Orca calf spotted in critically endangered Puget Sound pod

A new orca calf, born into a pod of endangered orca whales seen in Puget Sound’s Salish Sea, is the first successful birth in three months. This footage shows a glimpse of the pod, including L1245, codenamed by the Center for Whale Research.
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A new orca calf, born into a pod of endangered orca whales seen in Puget Sound’s Salish Sea, is the first successful birth in three months. This footage shows a glimpse of the pod, including L1245, codenamed by the Center for Whale Research.

In the ongoing effort to save southern resident orcas, the Washington state Legislature has introduced a bill that aims to increase the population of the killer whales’ preferred food: chinook salmon.

The bill would provide new rules for fishing for some non-native species and expand the authority of the Department of Fish and Wildlife over some development projects.

HB 1579 is based on recommendations from the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, a group created at the end of the 2018 to study local orca populations.

The bill was discussed at a public hearing Tuesday before members of the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

“We know that their biggest limiting factor for their continuing survival is the availability and abundance of their primary prey, chinook salmon,” said Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, the bill’s primary sponsor.

Southern resident orcas survive mostly on chinook salmon. Due to dwindling salmon populations, the killer whales have been struggling to find proper nutrition and have been starving in coastal waters. Currently there are only 74 southern resident orcas, with two expected to die by the summer.

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The house bill would do several things to increase abundance of chinook.

First, the bill would declassify bass, channel catfish and walleye as “game fish.” That would eliminate catch limits on the non-native species, which are predators of young chinook salmon.

“We should do everything we can to encourage recreational fishers to catch as many of those fish as possible so they’re not predating chinook salmon,” said Fitzgibbon.

HB 1579 also would require a fishing license for smelt, which is a major food source for chinook.

The bill also would give the Department of Fish and Wildlife more oversight over construction projects near or in coastal waters.

That would allow the department to issue notices of correction, notices of violation and stop-work orders related to hydraulic aspects of development projects.

The department also would be able to reject hydraulic project applications submitted by people who have failed to pay civil penalties or those who refuse to comply with stop-work orders.

Civil penalties for violations of hydraulic code would increase from $100 per day per violation up to a $10,000 per violation. Additionally, the bill would declare hydraulic code violations to be a public nuisance.

Brendan Flynn, a commercial fisherman and member of the Orca Task Force who testified in support of HB 1579, said the new rules allowing more oversight by Fish and Wildlife would give the department the ability to take immediate action when it sees violations.

Some people said they were concerned about the expansion of Fish and Wildlife’s authority.

“We support orca recovery, and we will remain involved because it is a priority to us,” said Tom Davis with the Washington Farm Bureau. “When it comes to regulatory expansion, we just ask for caution moving forward.”

Davis said the regulatory expansion could affect farmers who have a short window to complete building projects.

The introduction of the bill comes at a crucial time for the survival of orcas as each of the pods, J, K and L, have pregnant orcas, according to Fitzgibbon.

“If they’re not going to suffer the same fate as the recent calves who haven’t made it, they need enough food to grow and thrive,” he said.

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