Slate of orca protection measures moving forward in legislature


OLYMPIA – The state House and Senate took action today to help protect the orca population from further decline, particularly the Southern Resident orca whales, who now only number 74 and are threatened with extinction. Bills addressing some of the greatest threats to orca survival, such as oil spills, toxic chemicals, vessel noise and disturbance, and sufficient food supply all passed today.

The measures advancing today are:

House Bill 1578, sponsored by Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D-Bow), which reduces threats to the iconic marine mammals by investing in oil spill prevention. It reinforces the state’s Oil Spill Prevention Act and the Strengthening Oil Transportation Act by requiring tug escorts for small oil tankers and barges traveling across narrow straights within the San Juan Islands. It passed on a 70-28 vote.

“This is about prevention. We will stand together as we provide the best safety measures to protect the Salish Sea and all the marine life who call her home. Together, we will build a toolbox full of accountability measures to protect today, and for all the generations coming after us,” said Lekanoff.

House Bill 1579, sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-West Seattle), increases habitat for Chinook salmon and other forage fish – the primary food source for orcas – with common sense, science-based protections giving more teeth to existing habitat protection laws. It passed by a vote of 59-39.

“If our Southern Resident orcas are going to recover, they need enough Chinook salmon to eat. By ensuring our existing habitat protection laws are enforceable, this bill will help stop the loss in habitat that threatens both salmon and orcas,” said Fitzgibbon, who chairs the House Environment & Energy Committee.

House Bill 1580, sponsored by Rep. Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen), reduces noise and disturbance from vessels to give orcas the space and quiet they need to find food and survive. It increases the distance boats must stay from Southern Resident orcas and adds a go-slow zone for boats viewing orcas. It passed by a vote of 78-20.

“We need to quiet our waters if we’re serious about protecting the orcas, and we want to do this by balancing the interests of both business and conservation groups,” said Blake, who chairs the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. “If we don’t act now, pretty soon there won’t be any whales to watch, and that would definitely end the whale watching industry. Nobody wants that.”

The companion bill to HB 1580, Senate Bill 5577, also passed the Senate today. Sponsored by Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island), it passed on a 46-3 vote.

“We know that slowing down boats and providing a large zone where boats are absent are necessary to quiet the waters near orcas and preserve their health,” Rolfes said. “This is another key step to protect our vulnerable orca population.”

Senate Bill 5135, also sponsored by Sen. Rolfes, would direct the state to identify and take immediate action on five classes of chemicals known to be harmful to children and the environment. It passed the Senate on a 25-24 vote.

“People expect the state to take immediate action to protect public health, and this legislation provides the tools to better protect our personal and environmental health,” Rolfes said. “This comprehensive approach will also allow us to identify pollution at its source before it enters our water supplies, food, homes, marine waters, and especially our bodies.”

Senate Bill 5918, sponsored by Sen. Liz Lovelett (D-Anacortes), would require state boating education to include information on these new regulations, safe whale watching, and other actions boaters can take to protect the health of orcas. It passed unanimously.

“The decline of orcas in Puget Sound requires our action on many fronts, including improving their food sources, removing toxins in the water, and reducing noise from boats,” said Sen. Liz Lovelett (D-Anacortes). “The world watched when our Southern Resident member, Tahlequah, carried her dead calf for a thousand miles and showed us all that we must take immediate action to protect them.”

The House and Senate have until Wednesday, March 13 to pass bills that originated in each chamber over to the opposite chamber.