Task force teams up with Canada for orca solutions

The United States and Canada are working together to save the endangered Southern resident orca.

The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force met for a second time this year for a review of the successful Legislature season and to discuss the group’s next steps on June 3 in Puyallup. Also, earlier this month, a new orca calf was spotted with J pod, the second baby to be sighted this year.

“A lot of good things have happened,” task force co-chair Stephanie Solien said. “Today is really a day to celebrate.”

There was significant progress made by the Legislature this year, Solien explained, with $933 million in actions passed related to Southern resident recovery.

“This funding is significant and will go a long way to helping in implementing our recommendations. And we thank the Legislature for that,” Solien said.

Solien said there are two more meetings scheduled for the task force, one in September and another in October, after which the group will make more suggestions to Gov. Jay Inslee. Over the summer, workgroups will gather to come up with ideas to present to the group during the September meeting.

Government representatives from Canada were present at the meeting as well, to share what the nation to the north has done to support the orcas.

“They have joined us in, last spring, creating their own work groups and coming up with their own recommendations,” Solien said. “I think the momentum that this task force has brought to the issue, not only to the orca but the quality of life that we all value and what’s at stake for this very region, is very much in focus today.”

The majority of the task force meeting contained “fishbowl” discussions about the most important topics regarding orca recovery. The more than 40 members of the task force were invited to sit in one of four chairs in the center of the room to give their two cents about the discussion at hand.

“The work we’re doing here is critical, it’s important, it’s timely,” said National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration marine biologist Lynne Barre. “This is all being done in a coordinated fashion across the border.”

Orcas were listed as an endangered species in Washington state in 2004, and nationally in 2005. The population of Southern resident killer whales has declined from 98 in 1995 to 74 in 2018 — the lowest it has been in 30 years.

Gov. Inslee signed Executive Order 18-02 on March 14, which designated state agencies to take immediate action to benefit Southern resident killer whales and asked the task force to suggest long-term actions for orca recovery and sustainability. The group is comprised of scientists, politicians from various levels of government, members of the private sector and nonprofits as well as state agencies and area tribes.

Prey availability

Jacques White, executive director of hatchery nonprofit Long Live the Kings, started the prey fishbowl discussion by asking some questions regarding production needs. How much salmon do the orcas need to survive? How large do the salmon need to be?

When reviewing the action made by the government based on the task force’s suggestions, 19 of the recommendations were marked as having “some pieces moving.” Five of them were red, meaning nothing productive was happening with those recommendations.

“Some say this is the best legislative session for the environment since the 1970s,” White said. “We should take some solace that we can make progress on these issues, but … we have a ton of work to do.”

White said the budget doesn’t look like a crisis budget and a lot of science still needs to be done. He added that the recommendation of removing or retrofitting culverts for easier salmon passage should have gotten more than it was allotted.

“This is going to sound a little bit like a kid who had a great birthday party and then goes on and tells his parents about all the things that they didn’t get,” task force member and SeaDoc Society Science Director Joe Gaydos said. “I’m filled with gratitude for everyone here, in the Legislature, and I do believe we’ve accomplished a ton.”

Gaydos continued that though many little things have been done to help restore the ailing orca community, the little things that are done won’t save the orcas; food will. He questioned whether the task force, Legislature and community are doing enough to be successful.

“If we don’t put fish into the mouths for these whales, we are not going to succeed,” Gaydos said. “If we don’t do that this year, then I’m afraid we’re going to have to wait 10 years and go, ‘Oh, we failed, that’s too bad.’ None of us want to do that. … A scientist saying we need more science is like a barber saying you need a haircut.”

Vessel traffic

Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, of San Juan Island, represented his father, task force member and Center of Whale Research’s Ken Balcomb at the meeting, as well as the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

“We need to start to recognize the improvements they’ve made over the decades. … Recognize the value and contributions that they make to this industry,” Balcomb-Bartok said. “I would never have said that 30 years ago but I can certainly say that now.”

Balcomb-Bartok added that shipping and whale-watching are not the primary source of problems for the orcas, but rather the private vessels. He encouraged the task force to work with its Canadian counterparts to work better together and come up with the same vessel requirements.

“It’s going to be a challenging summer this year with new regulations in Washington state and Canadian waters,” Barre said, adding that organizations like The Whale Museum’s Soundwatch and Canada’s Straitwatch will be the first line of defense in protecting the orca and making sure the new rules are followed. “That focus on education and outreach is going to be very critical.”

Seattle-based nonprofit The Whale Trail founder Donna Sandstrom said that 2021 will bring about a permit system for the whale watching industry that will manage the number of boats and how often they can be near the Southern residents. She encourages the task force to still seek to suspend whale watching altogether.

“I think we should make all efforts to make sure it gets implemented one way or another,” Sandstrom said, adding that Canadian whale watching companies have voluntarily stopped actively seeking out the Southern residents for observation. “That is leadership; that is stewardship; that is responsible ecotourism and I encourage the [Pacific Whale Watch Association] to follow that rule.”

Washington Environmental Council’s Mindy Roberts said that the task force needs to make a statement on the Navy’s environmental impact study of Northwest training and testing, which is currently in its public comment period. She added that the group needs to coordinate with the Navy to reduce underwater acoustics and to take a stand on the use of sonar and underwater explosions.

Solien said that Inslee’s office is drafting a letter in response to the proposed testing.

“He would obviously acknowledge the work and the real concern that we all share regarding the southern residents,” Solien said.

Sandstrom explained that British Columbia’s Cetacean Sighting Network has established WhaleReport Alert System for vessels to inform one another that there are whales in the area and to take caution. She suggested the United States look into adopting that technology and creating a similar network. The San Juan County Marine Resource Committee introduced a similar, low-tech flag warning system in June 2018 to alert boaters that whales had been spotted in the area.

Canada’s plan

“Lots of change this year, lots of new things coming into place,” Transport Canada Senior Analyst Jeff Pelton said. “As much as there are some slight differences, there was definitely an effort on all parts to align as much as possible wherever appropriate and where it made sense to with the measures you were looking at in Washington state.”

Pelton explained that Canada has established different requirements for unique areas of the Salish Sea. Voluntary measures in areas which have been designated as “critical habitats” include turning off echolocators and idling within 400 meters of whales. In “enhanced management areas,” there are fishery avoidance zones, and small boats must slow to 7 knots if they’re within 1,000 feet of Southern residents. A test concept for Transport Canada is “sanctuary zones” wherein vessels are prohibited except for in emergency situations or that is the only way to access a home, Pelton explained.

“One thing that we heard loud and clear … was the need to really be monitoring and measuring the outcomes of a lot of these measures,” Pelton.

Along with protecting areas in which orcas live and dine, Canada is also seeking the same solutions the United States is, like restoring the Chinook salmon population.

“I’m sure it’s no secret to anyone in this room. It’s incredibly complex, it’s not just simply a matter of putting more fish out there — although that’s part of it,” said Fisheries and Oceans Canada representative Corey Jackson. “But certainly, making sure that whales have the ability to feed and forage successfully in their critical habitat is critical if we’re going to recover this population.”

Canada is looking at recovery in two phases, Jackson explained, short-term and long-term. These solutions include habitat protection and restoration; salmon enhancement; forage fish survival; and pinniped predation.

“We’re looking to you guys for your leadership and a lot of the insights from the American side there,” Jackson said.

Jackson continued, adding that areas on which the United States and Canada can collaborate include further aligning measures where possible and practical; education outreach; and research and evaluation.

Task force member George Harris of the Northwest Marine Trade Association asked whether Transport Canada received any pushback from recreational, commercial or indigenous communities regarding closing sanctuary zones. Jackson said the discussion was “extremely challenging” and that not everyone is happy or supportive.

“It’s never easy to get everyone to agree on the same approach,” Pelton added. “All of these things, no matter what we do, are going to have an impact on somebody. We need to be understanding that impact is not happening for nothing.”