Laws to protect orcas with cleaner, quieter water, more salmon

May 9, 2019

OLYMPIA – Washington will take steps to protect its dwindling number of orcas in and around the Puget Sound, ordering boats to stay farther away from them, increasing protections against oil spills and building up the supply of salmon the large marine mammals feed on.

Surrounded by tribal representatives, environmental activists and legislators, Inslee signed a series of five bills with suggestions from a task force on saving the large marine mammals by providing cleaner, quieter waters with more food.

“As orcas go, so go we,” he said.

One bill will require tugs to escort oil tankers and barges in certain areas of the Sound starting in September 2020, and for the Department of Ecology to develop models to assess the risk of oil spills and an emergency response vessel in the water around the San Juan Islands.

Another requires the department to identify harmful chemicals, such as PCBs, polyfluoroalkyl substances, other fire retardants and some plastic packaging that may be a threat to the orcas or other sensitive species. After investigations and public input, the department can determine whether they should be restricted or prohibited.

Another bill directs the Department of Fish and Wildlife to increase the catch of certain fish that feed on young migrating salmon, and work with communities, tribes and private land owners to seek voluntary compliance on the permits needed for projects that involve changing or obstructing stream flow. Inslee described it as “creating fish-friendly shorelines.”

A fourth bill increases the distance boats must keep from orcas to 300 yards, from the current 200 yards, and no closer than 400 yards behind an orca. Boats can’t travel faster than 7 knots within a half-mile. Commercial whale watching operations must pay a $75 application fee and a $200 annual license fee, along with annual fees per vessel that range from $125 to $2,825 depending on the number of boats or the number of passengers they can carry.

The fifth bill adds whale watching guidelines to the state Parks and Recreation Commission’s boating safety rules.

The orca bills were signed a day after Inslee signed a series of laws designed to improve the environment by reducing carbon pollution and moving the state off fossil fuels. Protecting the southern resident orca pod, which has seen its numbers dwindle in recent years, is a priority, he said, and the bills will give them “a fighting chance.”