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Orca task force meets in Anacortes

August 29, 2018

A young southern resident orca pursues a chinook salmon near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in this photo taken from a drone flown through a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s John Durban, SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research’s Holly Fearnbach and the Vancouver Aquarium Coastal Ocean Research Institute’s Lance Barrett-Lennard, using permit No. 19091.

ANACORTES — The task force working to prioritize ways to help the region’s endangered orca whales met Tuesday in Anacortes, drawing a crowd that filled a room to capacity at the Swinomish Casino and Lodge.

With every seat taken, some meeting observers — including several wearing orca costumes — had to stand. Others, including tribal members, sat on the floor.

Task force members said there is clearly an urgency and interest in saving the dwindling population of iconic whales.

They are working to compile actions that could be taken immediately to help save the whales as well as actions that will be needed long term to ensure the whales don’t go extinct.

Several task force members, including Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Government Affairs Director Debra Lekanoff, recounted the death of an orca calf in July and the desperate act of the mother who carried it with her for 17 days.

“I’m a very sentimental person and I’m a mother — it just broke my heart,” Lekanoff said of the mother orca’s 1,000-mile journey, which made headlines throughout August.

An ailing orca in the same family group has also made headlines.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Orca Recovery Coordinator Lynne Barre said she’s glad to see the news coverage of those orcas, and she hopes it prompts action to save their kind as a whole.

That’s exactly what Gov. Jay Inslee has asked the task force to do.

Inslee directed the formation of the task force through an executive order in March, and a group of several dozen members signed on soon after.

“It was a sudden move and it was a gift to us all who care about saving the orca, about saving the salmon, about saving this ecosystem in the Salish Sea,” task force co-chair Stephanie Solien said.

The group, which includes Samish Indian Nation Chairman Tom Wooten and Port of Anacortes Commissioner Kathy Pittis, held its first meeting May 1 and is expected to provide Inslee with a report before the end of the year.

The task force co-chairs said by November the group should have a list of immediate actions to recommend to Inslee and a list of long-term actions also needed to help the orcas and the chinook salmon they rely on for food. The task force will continue its work in 2019.

On Tuesday, the group continued discussions about how the region’s iconic whales are impacted by vessel traffic, hydroelectric power and a shortage of salmon.

The southern resident orcas, sometimes called killer whales, are those that frequent the Salish Sea in pursuit of salmon, particularly during the summer.

The orca population was listed as endangered in 2005 when there were 88 whales. The population, which is broken into three pods or family groups, is at 75 whales today, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Orca Network.

The consensus of those studying the whales is that they are not getting enough food — they rely heavily on endangered Puget Sound chinook salmon — are being poisoned by chemicals accumulating in the food chain and being disturbed by the sounds of boat traffic.

Several environment groups are calling on Inslee and the task force to expand habitat protections for the orcas and focus on providing food for the whales.

“If ever there were a time to unite behind multiple bold actions to save these orcas, this is it,” Deborah Giles, orca researcher and science adviser for the Orca Salmon Alliance, said in a news release. “This is a crisis situation. If we don’t take this opportunity for bold action across the board, we’re going to lose these whales.”

The alliance is a coalition of environment groups that formed in 2015 to call attention to the connection between the endangered orcas and endangered salmon.

Orca recovery task force co-chair Les Purce said since forming, the group has received several thousand comments from about 2,000 individuals and organizations that want to see the iconic whales saved, with some of the comments focused on vessel traffic, some on pollution and some on aiding the recovery of salmon, even if that means removing dams on the lower Snake River.

“They are expressing their concerns ... that point out the complexity of the issue at hand,” he said.

Ray Harris, co-chair of the First Nation Summit and Coast Salish Gathering, said for area tribes the task force is a ray of hope for saving the whales they consider family.

“We still remember the time that us and the whale, the wolves and others were equal,” he said. “The care and concern we have for the whale is beyond deep. We have no choice but to turn to each of you to ask you to help save the whale.”

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