British Columbia

Washington's King County 'doubling down' to help killer whales

Public concern for the southern resident killer whales is leading to new measures to clean up the waters across the border in Washington state.

Floating sea lab SoundGuardian is monitoring ocean health

A southern resident killer whale eats salmon in the Salish Sea. Orcas sit at the top of a fragile food chain that is threatened by pollutants and warming ocean temperatures. (Center for Whale Research)

Public concern for the southern resident killer whales is leading to new measures to clean up the waters across the border in Washington state. 

Abby Hook, manager for King County's clean water and healthy habitat initiative, compared the county of roughly 2.2 million people to Metro Vancouver — not only in terms of population, but also in its desire to protect the whales.

"I think that everyone throughout the Salish Sea has this same sense of urgency as we see the [whale] population start to decline," she told CBC's The Early Edition.

"They're such an iconic species." 

The SoundGuardian, a floating sea lab off Washington's coast, is monitoring marine conditions that threaten the whales in Puget Sound — which runs along the coast and is part of the Salish Sea.  

It's part of the push for clean habitat that came out of more than 25 recommendations last year from Washington's Orca Task Force.

Three major threats

Hook, who was part of the advisory team for the task force, said there are three main threats the team is monitoring: a scarcity of food, pollutants in the water, and boat traffic. 

"[The main goals include] increasing chinook salmon availability so that the whales have something to eat, and reducing the toxin load in the Salish Sea so that their own fat cells are not poisoning them," she said.

"And then, of course, reducing vessel noise so that the whales can hear well enough to be able to hunt."

This summer, the whales have been uncharacteristically out of sight. The haven't been spotted in inland waters since July 6 and, before that, were only seen a handful of times.  

"It really has to do with where they can find food," Hook said. 

"Historically, their summer habitat was in the San Juan Islands and the Channel Islands but as the spring salmon stocks fall off and aren't as available, they're going to go where the food is."

She said the current state of the chinook population in the waters of Washington state is similar to the levels in B.C. waters, with many of the runs at about 10 per cent of historical ranges. 

"We're doubling down on our investment in habitat," said Hook.

"We're starting to look at, as a county, what can we affect in the near-term to try to deal with some of the problems that are facing the whales."

For more on the plight of the Southern Resident Killer Whales, check out Killers: J pod on the brink. You can get it now for free at CBC Podcasts.

With files from The Early Edition


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