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Inslee's Orca Task Force: What happened in year one, what's next

posted Sep 18, 2019, 1:06 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Sep 20, 2019, 4:23 PM ]
Southern Resident Orca J35, by Joan Poor

By Karlee Deatherage, Clean Water Policy Analyst | karleed@re-sources.org

When endangered Southern Resident Orca pods lost several family members in 2017 and 2018, bringing the population to a historic low, Governor Inslee convened the Southern Resident Orca Recovery Task Force, charged with developing a plan to keep this iconic species from extinction over its two-year tenure. They released a final set of Year 1 recommended actions in November 2018, and have only had a couple meetings in 2019 to solidify the state’s action plan — a vital step in making sure orcas have sufficient salmon to eat, reduced disturbance from loud vessels in Puget Sound, and fewer toxic pollutants entering the waterways they live and hunt in. 

I had a front row seat in the audience for the full-day, penultimate Southern Resident Orca Recovery Task Force meeting on September 9th in Port Angeles. This was a pivotal meeting for the future of how Washington State will keep up long-term efforts once the Task Force concludes at the end of November 2019. I was there to support policies that encourage net-gain of habitat and ecosystem functions (the no-net-loss mandate is currently not working), and to emphasize the need to improve streamflows for salmon in the face of population growth and climate change. (You can see it recorded here)

This was a critical meeting to attend: We needed to hold onto the momentum and urgency on the heels of a successful 2019 legislative session for salmon and orcas, and to advocate for which recommendations not completed in Year 1 should be in the Year 2 Report to the Governor. One of my friends, Mindy Roberts, on the Task Force informed me that the June meeting was poorly attended by the public and there was concern that public momentum was drifting. She urged me to attend. Thankfully there were roughly 50 people in the audience at this meeting continuing the drumbeat for action to recover our orcas and salmon. 

A couple salient examples of recommendations that have not yet been acted upon are the need to create incentives for redeveloping stormwater hot-spots that would cut pollution, or fully funding culvert projects to boost struggling salmon populations. Task Force member Joe Gaydos of the Sea Doc Society, stated that less than 70% of the Year 1 actions have been implemented — and this is not a success. Most of the inaction is a result of insufficient funding and the need for federal partners to act.

Year 1 recommendations focused on...
  1. The immediate actions we can take that will have an impact as soon as they’re implemented, or
  2. Actions we need to get a head start on now.
Year 2 is more focused on the long-term health of orcas in the face of climate change and population growth. 

My take-aways from the meeting

  • Orca Health is declining: 73 Southern resident orcas remain after the presumed deaths of three that have gone missing. The orca pods have been spotted predominantly in Canadian waters, which is unusual for the summer when they are typically found foraging west of San Juan Island.
  • There has been miscommunication on the Lower Snake River Dams stakeholder forum: Some Task Force members and members of the public expressed concern with the Lower Snake River Dam Stakeholder process set up by the Governor. They hoped for a forum or task force; however, the Governor has hired a team of consultants to interview key community stakeholders to create a report that will help inform the state’s position on the federal court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the dams.
  • Tribes appear frustrated with the Orca Task Force process: While they appreciate being at the table with other stakeholders, they asked the Governor last year for a formal government-to-government consultation process that runs parallel to the work of the Task Force.
  • We need a Net-gain of habitat policy in the face of ineffective “no net loss” policies: The no-net-loss mandate for ecosystem functions in the Growth Management Act, Shoreline Management Act, and other laws is not working to protect habitat for Chinook salmon and other species important for orcas. It is also not working to reduce pollution. Instead, a policy of net-gain is needed in the face of climate change and population growth.
  • We have to limit nutrients entering the Salish Sea: Excessive nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen can create low levels of dissolved oxygen, or dead zones, in Puget Sound. This can negatively impact the food web for orcas and will only be exacerbated by population growth and climate change. Ecology is currently looking at addressing excessive nutrient discharges from wastewater treatment plants – the largest contributors to nutrients in Puget Sound – by developing a Puget Sound Nutrients General Permit. A comment period is currently open on this idea.
  • We need to consider climate change impacts to vital habitat for the salmon food chain: In addition to finding ways to cut carbon and methane emissions, we need to consider how climate change impacts such as sea level rise and storm surges will disrupt and eliminate forage fish habitat. They need shorelines. Shorelines have one of two options - disappear with seawalls and bulkheads protecting property or they will migrate landward because of erosion. We will need strategies to identify the most appropriate areas for shorelines to migrate. Also, recommendations should consider how to make sure we have enough water in streams in the summer and fall for salmon spawning and reduce high, fast flows in the winter that can kill eggs and juvenile salmon.
  • The Task Force’s work will most likely continue into the future: Most members appear to support a hybrid approach for how Washington state continues to focus on orca recovery. This looks like a continuation of the Task Force; meeting once or twice per year to receive updates on implementation progress and adaptively manage those recommendations. This is different than going back to what we were doing before (disjointed) and creating a brand new governing body. The hybrid approach is cheaper than the latter and more effective than going back to the status quo.

The final meeting of the Orca Task Force is on October 7th. At this meeting, the Task Force will provide feedback on the draft Year 2 Recommendations and receive a briefing on recommendations related to our region’s population growth. Stay tuned for the draft recommendations report and an opportunity to weigh in with comments! We’ll have suggestions to help guide you through the comment period to make the process as simple and quick as possible. Make sure you’re opted in to our E-newsletters to have ways to take action delivered to you!

You can view the entirety of the Task Force meeting:

Morning session | Afternoon session | Task Force webpage to past meeting minutes and other materials