PORT ANGELES — A state orca task force debated whale watching operations and was urged to recommend the breaching of the lower Snake River dams.
The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force discussed its recommendations to Gov. Jay Inslee in a day-long meeting Monday in Port Angeles. A final report to Inslee is due Nov. 8.
Task force member Donna Sandstrom, founder and executive director of the Whale Trail, a Seattle nonprofit working to help the endangered Southern Resident orcas, suggested that the task force add its recommendation to suspend orca whale watching to an urgent list for legislative action.
“We’re not hopeless, but we will be soon,” Sandstrom said of the J, K and L orca pods that hunt chinook salmon in the Salish Sea.
“I want to put this back on the list as an urgent action. I want to empower and embolden all of us to find the legislative support for this while there is still time.”
Under a new law, whale watching boats and other vessels are prohibited from coming within 300 yards of an orca pod and must slow to at least 7 knots.
Jeff Friedman, U.S. president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and owner of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching in Friday Harbor, defended the whale watching business.
Friedman said there was a “huge correlation” between the orcas’ demise and a lack of chinook salmon returning to the Fraser River.
“We are here as part of this team and we are here because we care about the future of the Southern Residents,” Friedman told his fellow task force members.
“I’m asking that we tone down this rhetoric, that we do not bring out things that are not true.”
Friedman disputed Sandstrom’s claim that that there had been no change in the number of whale watching vessels viewing orcas, or the number of hours that orcas were being viewed.
“On most days that [orcas] have been here, we’ve had zero to five vessels with them, and we are often outnumbered by private vessels, government vessels and research vessels,” Friedman said.
Friedman added that 2019 had been a “very difficult year” for the industry.
“Some of this rhetoric has created unintended consequences that we’re seeing on a daily basis of being yelled at out on the water,” Friedman said.
“Look, you can yell at me. That’s fine. But we have people from all over the world coming out to learn about wildlife and the ecosystem and they’re experiencing this, and this is not a good face to have on Washington.”
Sandstrom said there had been a net loss of the Southern Resident orcas this year. Two calves were born and three adults, ages 27, 28 and 41, perished in their primes, Sandstrom said.
“We have displaced the orcas out of their core and critical habitat,” Sandstrom said.
“It is not normal for the orcas to be gone from the Salish Sea May through August, yet that is what we are witnessing. They’ve been coming back fewer and fewer every year.”
The 38 task force members who were present for the discussion on the final report to Inslee took no action on Sandstrom’s proposal.
Sandstrom said an earlier proposal to impose a 650-yard viewing restriction for commercial whale watching vessels was “bartered down” to 300 yards in the legislative session.
“The Pacific Whale Watch Association itself has agreed to stop watching the southern residents in Canada,” Sandstrom said.
“So I truly and fully do not understand why they can’t extend the same respect on this side of the border.”
Friedman said whale watching companies have agreed to give the whales extra space.
“I’ve been out there personally … where I’m 400 or 500 yards away,” Friedman said.
“I’m lined up with the NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] boat, the WDFW [Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife] boat, Sound Watch, Strait Watch and two research boats, and I’m the only whale watching boat there.”
“I’m asking you dial down the rhetoric,” Friedman added.
“We are doing things voluntarily that are beyond what the regulations have called for, and I think that it’s time we start focusing on some other things and dial back from this.”
The task force also discussed population growth, climate change and a desire to abandon the “no net loss” of ecological functions standard in the state growth and shoreline management acts in favor of a “net gain.”
The task force published 36 recommendations last November. The recommendations were based on three goals:
• Increase the abundance of chinook salmon.
• Decrease disturbances and risk to orcas from vessels and noise and increase assess to prey.
• Reduce exposure to contaminants.
A protester interrupted a discussion on the impacts of vessel traffic by yelling: “Breach the dams! Free the Snake!”
One of the task force’s recommendations was to “establish a stakeholder process to discuss potential breaching or removal of the lower Snake River dams for the benefit of Southern Resident orcas.”
More than a dozen protesters in whale costumes stood in front of the Vern Burton Community Center before the meeting to implore the task force to recommend removal of four dams on the lower Snake River.
The task force did not address the dams during a 105-minute discussion on its report to Inslee, who convened the panel two years ago.
Eleven of the 24 speakers who testified in a public comment period near the end of the meeting also favored the removal of the dams.
“It’s time for the dams to come out,” said Coleman Byrnes, a retired fish biologist who worked on the fish bypass system on the Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River.
“I was there for several years and I saw the damage that those dams were doing to the fish.”
Byrnes said the series of lakes behind the dams warm the water, causing fish to “die like flies.”
“I live here in Clallam County and I saw the response at the Elwha River when the dams came out,” Byrnes told the task force.
“The lower dam came out and within a few months chinook were at Indian Creek above that dam.”
Tyson Minck of Port Angeles directed his remarks to Inslee through a video camera that was recording the meeting.
“If you want to confront [President] Trump and you want bold climate action, you need to breach the lower Snake River dams right now,” Minck said.
Ed Chadd of Port Angeles, chair of Olympic Climate Action, donned a whale costume and performed a rap for his public comment.
“Those dams ain’t tough,” Chadd said, rapping as his “orca cousin,” J-51.
“You could breach them in a season, but you’re stuck in a rut for political reasons.
“So get this straight,” Chadd continued.
“If to save us is your vow, you’ll get your act together and take those dams out now.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].