Inslee’s budget takes big steps to save orcas and salmon


It’s difficult to imagine a Washington without orcas or salmon. These species are part of the cultural identity, fishing economy and tourism industry of our region. But both Washington’s Southern Resident orcas and salmon are facing a dismal fate. More than a century of development and human activity along the Puget Sound and Columbia River along with the ravages of climate change are largely to blame.

Today Gov. Inslee announced an unprecedented investment to save Southern Resident orcas. Without taking bold actions and drastically changing human impact to our environment, these animals may not survive. Gov. Inslee’s 2019–21 state operating, capital and transportation budgets include a broad array of investments to build towards thriving and resilient orca and salmon populations.

“We are undertaking a herculean effort to save these iconic creatures. It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state,” Inslee said. “We need to restore the ecosystem to one that sustains orcas, salmon and the quality of life for all Washingtonians.”

Supporting Southern Resident orca recovery efforts is one of the top priorities of Inslee’s 2019–21 budgets. His operating, capital and transportation budgets for the next biennium include a combined $1.1 billion in investments that will help ensure a thriving and resilient orca population. Besides helping orcas, these investments will have significant benefits for the region’s entire ecosystem and complement efforts to recover salmon, tackle climate change, improve water quality and more.

Saving orcas

Unfortunately, there is no one, easy solution to saving Washington’s resident killer whales. What was historically a healthy population of around 200 animals has now dwindled to 74 orcas. The environmental conditions that threaten their survival took generations to create and will take a grand, coordinated effort to reverse. Each piece of this puzzle is complicated and delicate.

There are three key problems impacting the health of orcas: lack of food, toxics in the water and noise disturbance from boats and other vessels.

Inslee orders agencies to focus in on the problem

In March of 2018, Inslee issued an executive order directing state agencies to take immediate actions to help the struggling orca population and establishing the Southern Resident Orca Task Force to develop a long-term plan for recovering orcas. The task force includes nearly 50 members representing a wide range of sectors including state agencies, the legislature, and state, tribal, federal and local governments, as well as private sector and non-profit organizations.

This fall, after months of deliberation and public input that included 18,000 written public comments, the task force issued a report to the governor with dozens of recommendations to alleviate the major threats to Southern Resident orcas. The task force set an initial target of increasing the population to 84 orcas over the next decade. The task force’s recommendations support four overarching goals to benefit orcas:

  • Increasing the abundance of Chinook salmon
  • Decreasing disturbance and other risks posed by vessel traffic and noise
  • Reducing exposure to toxic pollutants — for orcas and their prey
  • Ensuring adequate funding, information and accountability measures are in place to support effective recovery efforts moving forward

More food for whales

Inslee’s budget proposes funding investments across the state to increase the amount of food available for orcas. The region’s populations of Chinook salmon — the whales’ primary source of food — have been greatly diminished by habitat loss, hydropower development, historic over-harvesting, increased predation from seals and sea lions, and toxins in the water that inhibit their ability to hunt and spawn. In addition, the migration these fish make naturally has become much more harrowing due to the effects of climate change; they face warm and shallow rivers, warm and acidic waters in Puget Sound and the ocean, and low dissolved oxygen throughout much of the waters they travel. As a result, salmon runs have declined significantly over the past few decades.

Since salmon travel across our entire state, Inslee has proposed statewide actions to increase their numbers. Productive, protected and connected habitat is critical to support sustainable populations for both naturally spawning salmon and hatchery produced salmon, as well as cool, clear water. To achieve this, Inslee’s budget provides $363 million in the capital budget for salmon recovery, culvert removal, water quality and water supply projects that will expand and improve salmon survival across the state. The transportation budget includes $296 million, a $205 million increase, for the Washington State Department of Transportation to correct fish passage barriers on state highways. The budget is also meant to meet the requirements of the U.S. District Court injunction requiring removal of fish passage barriers in most of Western Washington.

Inslee’s budget lays out funding for many projects and policies that will improve fish habitat across Washington. Some of these include:

  • $6.2 million in the operating budget to boost enforcement and improve compliance with state and federal habitat protection laws, including the Hydraulic Permit Act, Shoreline Management Act, Clean Water Act, as well as to implement legislation improving compliance with the Hydraulics Code.
  • $17.8 million in the operating and capital budgets to create incentives that encourage voluntary actions by landowners to protect habitat through the Washington State Conservation Commission.
  • Nearly $12 million in the operating budget to maximize existing capacity at Department of Fish and Wildlife hatcheries to produce an additional 18.6 million salmon smolts, which will result in approximately 186,000 additional adult returns.
  • Capital investments totaling $75.7 million in capital budget investments to make improvements to keep the hatchery system operating and meet water quality standards.
  • $524,000 in the operating budget to examine issues related to increasing the Chinook population by reestablishing salmon runs above Chief Joseph dam in both Puget Sound and the Columbia River.
  • $743,000 in the operating budget to improve monitoring and management of forage fish that provide the food source for Chinook.

Salmon hatcheries can play an important role in increasing prey abundance for Southern Resident orcas in the near term (three to 10 years). The state will continue investing significant resources into increasing natural Chinook stocks, but those increases will take substantially more time. Increases in hatchery production must be consistent with sustainable fisheries management principles and natural stock recovery under the Endangered Species Act.

More water for fish

Salmon in the Columbia and Snake River systems must travel over 14 dams when they migrate as smolts to the ocean and then return as adults. Inslee’s budget directs the Department of Ecology to increase the amount of water in salmon-bearing rivers and streams by modifying state Water Quality Standards to allow more spill over the Columbia River and Snake River dams. Increased spill will speed travel of smolts out to the ocean and help cool the water. Ecology has taken the first steps to modifying state water quality standards for greater spill; $580,000 is included in the operating budget to complete this process.

Breaching of the four lower Snake River dams has been raised by many as a way to increase Chinook for Southern Resident orcas. However, dams support irrigation, public water availability, recreation, navigation, energy and hatcheries. The Snake River dams also have a very productive salmon hatchery operating as part of their required environmental mitigation.

The Columbia River system is undergoing a federal environmental impact statement review on the operation of the dams in 2020. Following the Southern Resident Orca Task Force recommendation, Inslee’s proposal requires the state to facilitate a stakeholder process to inform a path moving forward should the Lower Snake River dams be removed. This will provide a better understanding of the environmental, economic and social impacts of the dams. It will also prepare the state to participate in the federal review by providing invaluable citizen engagement and input. The budget provides $750,000 for the task force to lead this stakeholder process.

Leveling the playing field for orcas’ competition for food

Seals and sea lions (pinnipeds), along with other predators such as fish and birds, impact the abundance of Chinook and other salmon that Southern Resident orcas eat. Thanks in large part to the adoption of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, the population of pinnipeds along the West Coast has increased dramatically. However, pinniped predation is especially a problem at “pinch points” such as dams or other artificial structures where salmon congregate. The operating budget includes $4.7 million to collect additional population information and develop management options for pinnipeds in Puget Sound and to increase management actions in the Columbia River.

Decreasing disturbance and other risks posed by vessel traffic and noise

Noise and disturbance from vessels impede the ability for Southern Resident orcas to navigate, communicate with one another and hunt for prey. To decrease disturbance to Southern Resident orcas, the governor proposes a permanent increase in the distance all vessels must maintain from the orcas to 400 yards and creates an unprecedented permanent “go-slow” zone for all vessels within a half a nautical mile of Southern Resident orcas. Scientists recommend that slowing boats and providing a large zone where boats are absent are both necessary to quiet the waters near these orcas.

(Office of the Governor graphic)

In addition, a limited-entry whale watching system for commercial vessels and commercial kayaks would be established through legislation to reduce the acoustic and physical disturbance to Southern Resident orcas. This will limit the number of boats that can observe these orcas and manage future interactions with them in state waters.

Inslee would also require a three-year temporary suspension on all Southern Resident orca whale watching. This would give Southern Resident orcas the protection and reprieve they need to benefit from other recovery efforts over the next few years. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife would review this after three years to evaluate the effectiveness of the suspension. Inslee will require Washington State Department of Commerce to collaborate with the industry on marketing campaign to promote whale watching experiences that view transient orcas.

The budget also includes $1.1 million for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to educate boaters and enforce these new requirements.

The frequent daily transits of Washington state ferries are a significant contributor to underwater noise in Puget Sound. The ferries are also a major source of greenhouse gases. The transportation budget provides $117 million to begin converting two of the state’s Jumbo Mark II ferries from diesel to hybrid-electric and to begin constructing two new hybrid-electric ferries. Besides reducing noise and greenhouse gas emissions, the new and modified vessels will lower operating costs by saving an estimated $7 million a year in fuel once the charging stations are in place and the boats are running in full electric mode.

(Office of the Governor graphic)

In addition to addressing ferry disturbance, the proposal requires the state to coordinate with the Navy in 2019 to work on reducing noise and disturbance from military exercises and Navy aircraft.

Oil spills represent a low-probability but high-impact risk to Southern Resident orcas. To reduce the risk of a catastrophic oil spill, the governor supports legislation and $751,000 to fund rule-making that will require tug escorts for barges transporting oil through high risk areas of Puget Sound. Currently, only the larger oil tankers have this safety requirement.

Reducing exposure to toxic pollutants — for orcas and their prey

Toxic contaminants in water and sediments are harmful to the marine food web supporting Southern Resident orcas. Orcas and their prey are exposed to an every-increasing mixture of these pollutants. Besides reducing the survival of salmon and other forage fish, these toxics are also absorbed by orcas, which can disrupt their reproduction and suppress their immune system.

To reduce this threat, the operating budget includes $3 million to enhance local source control programs and $4.2 million to speed up the management of toxics cleanups. To remove toxics already contaminating sediments, lands and structures, the operating budget includes $3.5 million to remove toxic creosote structures. And, the capital budget has $57.8 million to clean up toxic sites, $51 million to reduce and manage stormwater and $32 million to address contaminants from wastewater systems and other nonpoint sources.

To prevent toxic chemicals from being used in consumer products and then entering the environment where they pose a health risk to both people and orcas, the operating budget includes $2 million to enhance testing for toxics in products and $236,000 for reducing pharmaceuticals in wastewater. The operating and capital budgets provide $7.3 million to implement chemical action plans for preventing toxics from entering the environment.

Continuing science and support for recovery

A critical piece of saving Southern Resident orcas and salmon is ensuring adequate funding, information and accountability measures are in place to support effective recovery moving forward. Additional science and monitoring will be needed to fill data gaps, measure progress, and improve efforts over time.

The operating budget provides $1.4 million to monitor zooplankton and increase monitoring of pollution in marine waters and $3.5 million to conduct research and modeling. Meanwhile, $1.3 million is included in the operating budget for state agencies to support overall recovery efforts and consultant support for the second year of the Governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.