$1.1B pledged by Washington governor in 'herculean effort' to save orcas

With scientists warning that the Northwest's beloved killer whales are on the brink of extinction, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced dramatic plans Thursday to help the population recover — including $1.1 billion USD in spending and a partial whale-watching ban.

Partial whale-watching ban, removal of dams could be on list of actions

The population of southern resident killer whales — which live in the waters of B.C. and Washington State — is at its lowest level since the 1970s. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

With scientists warning that the Northwest's beloved killer whales are on the brink of extinction, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced dramatic plans Thursday to help the population recover — including $1.1 billion USD in spending and a partial whale-watching ban.

"We are undertaking a herculean effort to save these iconic creatures," Inslee said in a prepared statement. "It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state."

Starved by a dearth of salmon, poisoned by contaminants, and buffeted by vessel noise that hinders their hunting and communication, the orcas that live in the waters between Washington state and Canada's Vancouver Island have failed to reproduce successfully in the past three years. One grieving whale carried her dead calf on her head for 17 days last summer in an apparent effort to revive it.

There are 74 left in the population, the lowest number since the 1970s, when hundreds of orcas were captured in the region and more than 50 were kept for aquarium display.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee described the actions in his plan as "herculean." (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Inslee, who is mulling a Democratic presidential run in 2020, detailed the plans as part of his announcement of his priorities for the 2019-2021 state budget. The money would go toward protecting and restoring habitat for salmon, especially chinook, the orcas' favoured prey; boosting production from salmon hatcheries; storm-water cleanup; and quieting vessel traffic.

Whale-watching ban

Nearly $300 million would go toward complying with a court order that requires the state to replace culverts that block the path of migrating salmon.

Money would also support developing plans to move or kill seals and sea lions that feast on Columbia River salmon where they get blocked by dams or other structures, and changing state water quality standards to allow more water to be spilled over dams, helping young salmon reach the ocean.

Inslee called for a new capital gains tax and an increase in business taxes to help cover the tab.

The governor also said he intends to ban commercial whale-watching of the local endangered orcas — known as the southern residents — for three years. He stressed that whale-watching will be allowed for other whales in Washington waters, including nonresident orcas that pass through, and that the state would undertake efforts to promote the industry to offset any lost business.

Inslee said he intended to permanently double the size of the "no-go zone" for vessels around orcas to 365 metres and create a "go slow zone" with reduced speed limits within 926 metres. The Department of Fish and Wildlife would get $1.1 million for public education and enforcement.

His plans call for converting two state ferries to quieter electric hybrids and building two others as hybrids.

This July 25 photo shows the orca mother, J35, balancing her dead calf on her nose trying to keep it afloat. (Ken Balcomb/Centre for Whale Research)

Whale watchers, Republicans react

In a written statement, the Pacific Whale Watch Association did not directly address the proposed ban on whale watching. It said it is committed to protecting the whales and that it supports "science-based actions that will best support the future of these whales, including go-slow zones aimed at quieting the waters."

"Responsible ecotourism is a healthy and critical piece of conservation and education," the association said.

The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity has sued the federal government for not doing more to protect the full range of the orcas along the West Coast. Catherine Kilduff, the group's attorney, called Inslee's plans to reduce vessel noise a good first step.

But, as other environmentalists have done, Kilduff stressed that removing four major dams along the Snake River is essential for the recovery of salmon — and thus for the whales.

A federal court has already ordered the government to consider breaching the dams. Inslee's proposal includes having a task force examine the implications of that — including whether irrigation, transportation and electricity provided by the dams could be offset, such as by shipping goods by truck or by rail or by boosting wind or solar power generation.

Vessel noise can interfere with killer whales' ability to hunt, navigate and communicate with each other. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Republican U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, who represent Eastern Washington, said in a written statement Thursday that breaching the Snake River dams is out of the question.

"The people of Eastern Washington whose livelihoods depend on these dams should not be collateral damage for anyone's presidential ambitions," they said.