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Protecting Orca by Restoring Salmon

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to announce a plan and a task force aimed at saving and protecting the critically endangered southern resident killer whales, whose number has fallen from 98 animals in 1995 to 76 living today.


 By  Lynda V. Mapes                    
 Seattle Times environment reporter

With just 76 southern-resident orcas left frequenting Puget Sound, Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to announce Wednesday immediate and long-term steps to save the giant predators from extinction. 

In a news conference where he will be joined by tribal leaders from around Puget Sound, Inslee will direct seven agencies to boost orca recovery with a wide range of actions, and will announce the appointment of a task force to track progress and devise longer-term strategies. 

Even as the governor prepared to roll out an executive order establishing the initiative, members of the Lummi Nation on Tuesday sought to draw attention to the dwindling orca population in the Salish Sea by putting a spotlight on one killer whale: Tokitae, also known as Lolita, a female who has lived in captivity in Florida since being captured in 1970.
  
The tribe is seeking the return of the killer whale, proposing she be allowed to live out her days in an open-water sanctuary in a cove on Orcas Island.

Killer whales are critically endangered and their decline is due to several causes, most critically a lack of their preferred diet — salmon, especially chinook. 

Orcas also are affected by vessel noise because it interferes with their ability to locate prey, forcing the whales to work harder to find what fish are available. 

Lack of food also causes the whales to burn their fat, releasing chemical toxins absorbed from the environment and stored in the fat. 

Experts believe that both immediate and long-term actions are needed to rescue an animal whose population has declined from 98 animals in 1995. 

There are three distinct groups — called J, K and L pods — that frequent Puget Sound. These animals make up a genetically distinct population of orcas called southern-resident killer whales. 

Inslee will direct state agencies to work with federal, local and tribal governments to identity the highest priority watersheds for chinook salmon, with an eye toward boosting salmon populations by every means possible. Everything from habitat restoration to adjusting levels in the salmon harvest to helping the fish get past dams — it’s all on the table, according to the executive order.

The operators of tourist whale-watch vessels are to receive response training in the event of an oil spill, and Washington State Ferries will be directed to run more quietly in areas critical to the southern residents.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife will be asked to review commercial and recreational fishing regulations, prioritizing areas and fish runs that are key for southern-resident recovery. 

Future grants for Puget Sound recovery must also show how recovery of the southern residents would benefit, and the Department of Ecology must by July 31 prioritize funding for stormwater projects that benefit orca recovery. 

Agencies must develop plans for increased enforcement of regulations to protect orcas from boat traffic, including recreational boaters and commercial whale-watch tours.

The state budget includes $548,000 for that increased enforcement, and $837,000 to boost hatchery production of chinook salmon.

Inslee’s task force will be charged with monitoring the immediate actions and building on progress with longer-term strategies, with a report due by Nov. 1. 

That report must detail ongoing and new actions to address all threats to the southern residents. A final report, on lessons learned and unmet needs, will be due Oct. 1, 2019, when the task force will disband.

 All of the task-force meetings will be open to the public. 

Meantime, the Lummi tribe on Tuesday launched a campaign to repatriate the whale Tokitae, a female orca captured at Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove in 1970 and living in captivity since. 

The whale currently resides at the Miami Seaquarium. 

The tribe proposes moving her to Orcas Island, where she could feast on chinook from a hatchery. 

At least from there, she could hear the L pod of the southern resident killer whales, in which some of her relatives still survive, said Lummi Tribal Chairman Jay Julius.

 Perhaps one day she could even swim free, he said.

“That would be the ultimate outcome, but it’s one step at a time,” Julius said. 

The Seaquarium opposes the whale’s release, Eric Eimstad, general manager of the facility, said in a statement Tuesday. 

“It would be reckless and cruel to risk her life by moving her from her home solely to satisfy the desire of those who do not understand that such a move would jeopardize her life,” Eimstad said. 

Moving the orca would require a permit and would undergo rigorous scientific review by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, said NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein. 

Julius promised the tribe is in the fight for the long haul and announced a multicity tour of a totem pole carved by the House of Tears Carvers beginning May 9 to bring attention to Tokitae’s plight.

“This is about all Washingtonians,” he said. “It’s about the Salish Sea. Where she belongs. And what she belongs to. We can make this better. Clean up the water. It all points back to the salmon.”

 The tribe is also working with a filmmaker on a documentary about the whale, and released a trailer for it Tuesday.

Tokitae is the sole survivor of a brutal era of orca captures in Puget Sound, and she has a message about the Salish Sea today for all people, Julius said. 

 “It’s about reflecting on our past and what we allowed to take place and who the hell we are,” Julius said. “It’s about the need for getting back on the right path, correcting where we are going.”
 
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2515 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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