November 16, 2018
By Joel Connelly
Urgent recommendations for orca whale recovery, conveyed Friday by a task force he created, will test the depth of Gov. Jay Inslee's commitment to be America's greenest governor.
The Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force wants a three- to five-year moratorium on whale watching, "lethal and nonlethal" reductions in sea lion and seal populations, and more spill out of eight federal Columbia and Snake River dams.
The task force recommended the creation of a panel that would consider consequences if four Army Corps of Engineers dams on the lower Snake River are removed, a proposal backed by conservation groups but anathema to agribusiness and barge operators.
The proposals on dams are predicated on eating habits of the orcas: The great marine mammals feed almost exclusively on chinook salmon, listed under the Endangered Species Act. Sea lions and seals compete for the dwindling chinook population.
"These whales are on (their) last leg," State Sen. Kevin Ranker, R-Orcas, a task force member, has said of the southern resident orca population, now to 74 marine mammals at last counting.
Inslee praised the task force, but took a careful wait-and-see approach to the task force recommendations landing on his desk.
"We heard from thousands of people from all over the state, region and world who are very passionate about saving these animals," Inslee said in a statement, and then added in "governmentese":
"I will review these recommendations over the coming weeks and my staff and I will assess each more for the most impact in the short and long terms. I will roll out my budget and policy priorities in mid-December for consideration during the 2019 legislative session."
Ten of 36 recommendations from the task force would require action by the Legislature.
So far, Inslee has been most outspoken about a threat to the orca whales coming from north of the border.
The Governor has spoken forcefully against a giant oil pipeline project, linking Alberta to an oilport just east of Vancouver, that would send 34 laden tankers a month through waters of the San Juan and Gulf Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca -- prime habitat for the southern resident population.
Conservation groups seized on the spill recommendation, and potential removal of the Snake River dams.
"The science is clear and the public strongly supports increased spill at the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and removal of the lower Snake River dams," said Bill Arthur of the Sierra Club.
"These are essential actions to rebuild salmon populations in the near and long-term. With its recommendations, the Orca Task Force has called for urgent action in the Columbia Basin. We call on Governor Inslee to prioritize these actions."
Part of the public does not strongly support spill from the dams -- commonly known as the "fish flush" -- or removal of the dams.
President George H.W. Bush first promised to defend the dams during a 1992 speech in Colville. Soon-to-be-President George Bush took up the theme in Spokane during the 2000 campaign, declaring: "The man and the fish can coexist."
U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., tried to stop the "fish flush" in Congress earlier this year, after a federal judge ordered that it continue.
Spill from the dams cuts into their power production, and cuts down on electricity that the Bonneville Power Administration can sell to California during the spring. The federal agency has long complained about what it must do for salmon.
Upstream in the Snake River system, however, Idaho has a miles of unspoiled rivers in which salmon can spawn, much of it on the namesake Salmon River. A famous sign at the weir on Redfish Lake read: "Spawn your brains out."
The late, great Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus suggested that his state print a bumper sticker saying: "Idaho has habitat, needs fish."
Inslee did intervene earlier this year, opposing Republican lawmakers' efforts to curtain spill from the dams. Since the four Snake River dams are in Washington, however, the state's Democratic governors have never joined calls for their removal.
The task force had other recommendations.
It would reduce, by "lethal" and "non-lethal" means, the population of seals and sea lions that compete for the orcas' main food supply.
The panel proposes to reduce limits on the catch of non-native predatory fish that compete for chinook salmon, such as bass walleye and channel catfish.
The moratorium on orca watching is complicated by the fact that Southern Resident whales divide their time in the Salish Sea between waters of Washington and British Columbia.
A moratorium here would not apply to both countries. Travelers on B.C. ferries through Active Pass, linking Vancouver Island with the B.C. mainland, frequently watch as whale watching boats get close -- too close -- to orca whales.
Whatever is done, time is short, for both marine mammals and their prey. "We're playing catch-up today and there is not time to waste," said Joseph Bogaard of Save our Wild Salmon.
Call Governor Inslee today. Ask him to move forward quickly to increase spill, to convene a lower Snake River dam removal planning forum, and fund and implement the Task Force recommendations. Click here to find out how.