Puget Sound orcas surface near Tacoma. Photo by Mike Charest/Flickr

Puget Sound orcas surface near Tacoma. Photo by Mike Charest/Flickr

Orca Protection Act aims to protect Pacific Northwest’s iconic whales

Senator Kevin Ranker says the orca population in Puget Sound is down to 83, the lowest it had ever been.

Washington state’s orca whale population could receive a wealth of new legislative support, as a Senate committee Tuesday afternoon heard a bill that would require the state to add greater protections for the marine mammals, which are on the U.S. endangered species list.

Senate Bill 6268, comes from Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, as part of his Salish Sea Protection package, which also includes bills that address oil spill prevention and salmon farms.

Ranker calls the bill the Orca Protection Act and said the impressive creatures have been an important part of his political career since the very beginning.

In 2009, before being sworn in for the first time as a senator, Ranker met with scientists and policy thinkers to come up with a plan to save the whales. The senator said the orca population in Puget Sound was down to 83, the lowest it had ever been.

Ranker said the scientists told him the population may not be sustainable and could die out, but the legislator from San Juan County was resolute in his response:

“Not on my watch; let’s do something about this.”

More than eight years later, the population has fallen to 76, according to Penny Becker from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Becker said the whales that are still around are in poor health and are struggling to raise their young.

Ranker identified three factors as having the greatest impact on orca populations: toxins, lack of food and noise pollution. The senator has sponsored two other bills that target the first, while SB 6268 is designed to address the latter two.

Noise creates problems for both orcas and their salmon food source, Ranker said. Boats traveling at high speeds in the sound can scare orcas, but can also scare off the fish that make up their subsistence. Ranker said this problem has been identified by federal and independent researchers.

According to Ranker, noise is also an issue because it interferes with the whales’ sonar, rendering them unable to find food via echolocation.

“It doesn’t matter how many salmon are in the sea if the orcas can’t hear to find them,” said Donna Sandstrom, founder of the Whale Trail, at SB 6268’s public hearing Tuesday afternoon. The Whale Trail is a series of sites in Washington where the public can view orcas and other marine mammals.

SB 6268 addresses noise issues by requiring that boats stay at least 400 yards away from orcas and travel no faster than 7 knots, about 8 mph, when in their vicinity.

At the bill’s public hearing more than a dozen people signed in to support the bill, with none speaking out in opposition.

SB 6268 would also obligate Fish & Wildlife to send out a dedicated whale patrol boat 100 days over a 22-week period each year, which Ranker said would go a long ways in ensuring boaters do not break the law. The patrols would require some extra funding, which Ranker said was well worth the result.

“When you see blue lights on the water, all of a sudden every boat operator is following the law,” he said. “There are some issues that we can take on right now, and this is clearly one of them.”

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

[flipp]

More in Northwest

Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. File photo
Democratic lawmakers roll out spending plans for climate change, homelessness

Republican opposition calls for tax relief, rather than spending the increased revenue.

PNW plant-based foods could help in climate fight

Animal products create a lot of emissions, but veggie alternatives are coming from King County.

The Colstrip Power Plant in Montana. Puget Sound Energy owns 25 percent of the remaining two units. File photo
PSE files to sell part of Colstrip coal plant

The utility owns two units at the Montana power plant.

Fentanyl (Courtesy photo)
Fentanyl overdoses keep increasing in King County

Meth overdoses are on the rise as well, continuing a trend reported on last year.

Charter review could overhaul King County Sheriff’s Office

Several changes to the King County Sheriff’s Office were proposed.

The language of the original bill prohibited privately-owned detainment facilities from being contracted by local, state, or federal government entities, but a last-second amendment was adopted to substantially narrow the focus of the legislation. File photo
Lawmakers flinch on banning for-profit detention facilities

Last minute amendment exempted ICE detainment facility.

A proposal to make King County Metro fares free for low-income households could be approved in the coming months. File photo
King County considers free transit for low-income residents

The program would target those at or below 80 percent of the federal poverty level.

State Capitol Building, Olympia, Washington. File photo
Mental illness: Lawmakers propose plan to treat without consent

Concerns raised on the guardianship and loss of rights for incapacitated persons.

A King County work crew clears a road near Preston on Feb. 7, 2020. Heavy rains appear to have caused multiple landslides along the road. Aaron Kunkler/staff photo
The future could look a lot like this year’s flood season

Climate change is expected to lead to more winter flooding in King County.

Most Read