Last week, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee signed a package of bills aimed to help reverse the Southern Resident orcas’ freefall toward extinction. The mounting movement to save the orcas is rooted in love of place and a recognition, in Inslee’s words, that “as the orca go, so go we.”
The five orca bills came out of recommendations from the Orca Recovery Task Force. The first bill Inslee signed addresses oil spill prevention and requires tug escorts for previously exempt barges passing through the Salish Sea.
A second orca recovery bill addresses noise and disturbances from vessels, expanding the distance that boats must keep away from Southern Residents and decreasing the permitted speed boats can travel when close to the endangered whales. The law aims to quiet the underwater soundscape so that orcas can more easily hunt for salmon.
A third bill takes on contaminates that affect orca and human health at the source. Another bill seeks to increase salmon habitat by encouraging fish-friendly shorelines and to protect salmon’s forage fish. And the last bill adds whale watching guidelines to the boater safety education program.
In what is rapidly becoming the Year of the Orca, the Washington State Legislature also recently approved hard-won funding to increase the water spilled over the Columbia River dams (to help salmon survive their journey to the ocean) and to identify necessary mitigation for impacted stakeholders if the four dams on the lower Snake River are removed.
The sum allocated for the Snake River dam removal stakeholder process was relatively modest considering the State’s other expenditures. However, the political courage to confront dam removal was not. Bravo!
Implicit in the Legislature’s funding of the stakeholder process is recognition that the question is no longer whether removing the four Snake River dams would help save salmon and the Southern Resident orcas: the science is in and lower Snake River dam removal holds the single greatest potential for large-scale salmon recovery in the region and is critical to the orcas' survival.
Now the questions we must come together to solve are when the dams are removed--and their energy is replaced with clean alternatives--who will be impacted? How can we ensure that the wheat farmers and barge shippers are made whole? It is time to answer those questions.
After signing the five new bills, Inslee declared this June “Orca Action Month.” I recognize the hard work of the Orca Task Force, the Washington Legislature, and the Governor to help save salmon and orca over the past months and year. And, in some ways, Inslee’s declaration may seem like an odd end-note to a legislative session already so dedicated to orca recovery.
But the Governor’s call for a month of action on the heels of all these new bills was a sage reminder. Words on a page don’t feed the starving whales. We must stay focused on action.