WA State Steps Up Leadership in Orca and Salmon Crisis

Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed an Executive Order yesterday creating a new Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force. This is a strong step forward for these critically endnagered whales and the Chinook salmon they depend on for their survival. There are only 76 of these beloved and magnificent killer whales left.
Gov. Inslee signs Executive Order for Killer Whale Task Force
Credit: Credit: OSA

“The problems faced by orcas and salmon are human-caused, and we as Washingtonians have a duty to protect these species,” Governor Jay Inslee said yesterday at the signing of an Executive Order that established a new Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force. “The impacts of letting these two species disappear would be felt for generations.”

There are only 76 Southern Resident killer whales left, and these past few years we have seen more deaths than successful births.

Ken Balcomb
Credit: NRDC

Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research has lived with and studied these whales in the waters of Puget Sound for more than forty years. He knows each whale like family. He recently said, “I'm not going to count them to zero, at least not quietly.”

The heartbreak of counting down is perhaps part of why I couldn’t bring myself to write another blog about a dead killer whale this fall when young male J52 (or Sonic) died. It’s too hard to watch them go, one by one, and sometimes two at a time—like when J28 (or Polaris) died and then days later her 10-month-old J54 (Dipper) died too. J2 (or Granny) is the gal I miss the most, and I think of that old grandmother often.

Credit: Center for Whale Research, Photos taken under Federal Permits NMFS 15569 / DFO SARA 388

What the whales need is more fish. They survive on a diet of mostly Chinook salmon, and the fish they need are in tough shape too. Today, wild Fraser, Columbia, and Snake River salmon runs are only a small fraction of what they were 100 years ago. In large part, that's because we humans have set up a nearly impossible maze of hydropower dams obstructing or slowing passage. But dam passage is one of the things Gov. Inslee has charged his new Task Force with looking at.

The Governor’s Order calls for the Task Force to develop swift near-term actions and effective long-term actions to help killer whales and the salmon they depend on. He boldly calls on agencies throughout his administration—from the Department of Fish and Wildlife to the Department of Transportation—to prioritize killer whale and salmon recovery.

Gov. Inslee has taken the lead, but a large part of the work ahead, he rightly recognizes, must reach beyond state government agencies. The Governor has made it clear that tribal governments, neighboring states, NGO representatives, and Canada will be invited to join in the Task Force. The Task Force's first meeting will be in April, and they have been charged with producing recommendations for action by October of this year.

I suspect our whales feel a bit like I do. Tired of too much talk and not enough action. I hope the Governor's Task Force will be a chance for all of us that feel weary about a world that seems to be headed in the wrong direction on so many fronts to start seeing some progress. I want to be there to celebrate when Ken, and all of us, stop counting down and start counting up. The whales and the salmon have been waiting. But the time for that is done.

In his remarks at the signing of the Executive Order, Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman said that he can hear the whales calling for help. "Those are our ancestors talking to us," he said. "So we really cannot let this happen. We have to protect the orca whale."

Thank you, Gov. Inslee for putting together this Task Force. We stand ready to work together with you and your Task Force to save these great whales and the mighty fish they depend on.