Inslee calls for $1 billion to save orcas and salmon

Editor’s note: The state Legislature will vote on the budgets this winter.

Submitted by Governor Jay Inslee’s Office

It’s difficult to imagine a Washington without orcas or salmon. These species are part of the cultural identity, fishing economy and tourism industry of the region. Yet, both Washington’s Southern resident orcas and salmon are facing a dismal fate. More than a century of development and human activity along the Puget Sound and Columbia River along with the ravages of climate change are largely to blame.

On Dec. 13, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced an investment to save Southern resident orcas. Inslee’s 2019–21 state operating, capital and transportation budgets include investments to build towards thriving and resilient orca and salmon populations.

“We are undertaking a herculean effort to save these iconic creatures. It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state,” Inslee said. “We need to restore the ecosystem to one that sustains orcas, salmon and the quality of life for all Washingtonians.”

Inslee’s 2019–21 budgets for operating, capital and transportation include a combined $1.1 billion in investments that will help ensure a thriving and resilient orca population, as well as recover salmon, tackle climate change, improve water quality and more.

More food for whales

Inslee’s budget proposes funding investments across the state to increase the amount of food available for orcas. The region’s populations of Chinook salmon — the whales’ primary source of food — have been greatly diminished by habitat loss, hydropower development, historic over-harvesting, increased predation from seals and sea lions, and toxins in the water that inhibit their ability to hunt and spawn. In addition, the migration these fish make naturally has become much more harrowing due to the effects of climate change and salmon runs have declined significantly over the past few decades.

Since salmon travel across our entire state, Inslee has proposed statewide actions to increase their numbers. Productive, protected and connected habitat is critical to support sustainable populations for both naturally spawning salmon and hatchery-produced salmon, as well as cool, clear water. To achieve this, Inslee’s budget provides $363 million in the capital budget for salmon recovery, culvert removal, water quality and water supply projects that will expand and improve salmon survival across the state. The transportation budget includes $296 million, a $205 million increase, for the Washington State Department of Transportation to correct fish passage barriers on state highways. The budget is also meant to meet the requirements of the U.S. District Court injunction requiring removal of fish passage barriers in most of western Washington.

More water for fish

Salmon in the Columbia and Snake River systems must travel over 14 dams when they migrate as smolts to the ocean and then return as adults. Inslee’s budget directs the Department of Ecology to increase the amount of water in salmon-bearing rivers and streams by modifying state Water Quality Standards to allow more spill over the Columbia River and Snake River dams. The increased spill will speed travel of smolts out to the ocean and help cool the water. Ecology has taken the first steps to modify state water quality standards for greater spill; $580,000 is included in the operating budget to complete this process.

Breaching of the four lower Snake River dams has been raised by many as a way to increase Chinook for Southern resident orcas. However, dams support irrigation, public water availability, recreation, navigation, energy and hatcheries. The Snake River dams also have a very productive salmon hatchery operating as part of their required environmental mitigation.

The Columbia River system is undergoing a federal environmental impact statement review on the operation of the dams in 2020. Following the Southern Resident Orca Task Force recommendation, Inslee’s proposal requires the state to facilitate a stakeholder process to inform a path moving forward should the Lower Snake River dams be removed.

This will provide a better understanding of the environmental, economic and social impacts of the dams. It will also prepare the state to participate in the federal review by providing invaluable citizen engagement and input. The budget provides $750,000 for the task force to lead this stakeholder process.

Leveling the playing field for food

Seals and sea lions, along with other predators such as fish and birds, impact the abundance of Chinook and other salmon that Southern resident orcas eat. Thanks in large part to the adoption of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, the population of pinnipeds along the West Coast has increased dramatically. However, pinniped predation is especially a problem at dams or other artificial structures where salmon congregate. The operating budget includes $4.7 million to collect additional population information and develop management options for pinnipeds in Puget Sound and to increase management actions in the Columbia River.

Decrease vessel traffic and noise

Noise and disturbance from vessels impede the ability for Southern resident orcas to navigate, communicate with one another and hunt for prey. To decrease disturbance to Southern resident orcas, the governor proposes a permanent increase in the distance all vessels must maintain from the orcas to 400 yards and creates an unprecedented permanent “go-slow” zone for all vessels within a half a nautical mile of Southern resident orcas. Scientists recommend that slowing boats and providing a large zone where boats are absent are both necessary to quiet the waters near these orcas.

In addition, a limited-entry whale watching system for commercial vessels and commercial kayaks would be established through legislation to reduce the acoustic and physical disturbance to Southern Resident orcas. This will limit the number of boats that can observe these orcas and manage future interactions with them in state waters.

Inslee would also require a three-year temporary suspension on all Southern resident orca whale watching. This would give Southern resident orcas the protection and reprieve they need to benefit from other recovery efforts over the next few years. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife would review this after three years to evaluate the effectiveness of the suspension. Inslee will require Washington State Department of Commerce to collaborate with the industry on a marketing campaign to promote whale watching experiences that view transient orcas.

The budget also includes $1.1 million for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to educate boaters and enforce these new requirements.

The frequent daily transits of Washington state ferries are a significant contributor to underwater noise in Puget Sound. The ferries are also a major source of greenhouse gases. The transportation budget provides $117 million to begin converting two of the state’s Jumbo Mark II ferries from diesel to hybrid-electric and to begin constructing two new hybrid-electric ferries. Besides reducing noise and greenhouse gas emissions, the new and modified vessels will lower operating costs by saving an estimated $7 million a year in fuel once the charging stations are in place and the boats are running in full electric mode.

In addition to addressing ferry disturbance, the proposal requires the state to coordinate with the Navy in 2019 to work on reducing noise and disturbance from military exercises and Navy aircraft.

Oil spills represent a low-probability but high-impact risk to Southern resident orcas. To reduce the risk of a catastrophic oil spill, the governor supports legislation and $751,000 to fund rule-making that will require tug escorts for barges transporting oil through high-risk areas of Puget Sound. Currently, only the larger oil tankers have this safety requirement.

Reducing exposure to toxic pollutants — for orcas and their prey

Toxic contaminants in water and sediments are harmful to the marine food web supporting Southern Resident orcas. Orcas and their prey are exposed to an every-increasing mixture of these pollutants. Besides reducing the survival of salmon and other forage fish, these toxins are also absorbed by orcas, which can disrupt their reproduction and suppress their immune system.

To reduce this threat, the operating budget includes $3 million to enhance local source control programs and $4.2 million to speed up the management of toxics cleanups. To remove toxins already contaminating sediments, lands and structures, the operating budget includes $3.5 million to remove toxic creosote structures. And, the capital budget has $57.8 million to clean up toxic sites, $51 million to reduce and manage stormwater and $32 million to address contaminants from wastewater systems and other nonpoint sources.

To prevent toxic chemicals from being used in consumer products and then entering the environment where they pose a health risk to both people and orcas, the operating budget includes $2 million to enhance testing for toxins in products and $236,000 for reducing pharmaceuticals in wastewater. The operating and capital budgets provide $7.3 million to implement chemical action plans for preventing toxins from entering the environment.

Continuing science and support for recovery

A critical piece of saving Southern resident orcas and salmon is ensuring adequate funding, information and accountability measures are in place to support effective recovery moving forward. Additional science and monitoring will be needed to fill data gaps, measure progress, and improve efforts over time.

The operating budget provides $1.4 million to monitor zooplankton and increase monitoring of pollution in marine waters and $3.5 million to conduct research and modeling. Meanwhile, $1.3 million is included in the operating budget for state agencies to support overall recovery efforts and consultant support for the second year of the Governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.