Washington News Service: OLYMPIA, Wash. - An orca conservation team convened by Gov. Jay Inslee is holding its first meeting on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. The Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force will focus on ways to help the Northwest's iconic species.
Southern Resident Orca numbers in the Salish Sea have been in serious decline, reaching a high of 98 in 1995 and numbering only 76 today. It is the only killer whale population protected under the Endangered Species Act, but the state believes more conservation efforts are needed.
Stephanie Solien, who is co-chairing the Task Force, says many of the remaining orcas are in bad shape. She says the Task Force will focus on three of the well-known threats to the whales.
"There's a lack of adult chinook salmon abundance," she says. "There's persistent toxic pollutants that are both in our Puget Sound and in the waters all the way up to Canada. And underwater noise and disturbance from both commercial and recreational vessels."
Solein says underwater noise is affecting the whales' ability to forage and communicate. Inslee will be at the first meeting, where Solein says members will learn about the science of what the whales need to survive and set up a governing structure. In his executive order, Inslee laid out a two-year timeline for action.
The Task Force includes members of tribes, commercial fishing and conservation groups, the state Legislature and the provincial government of British Columbia.
Solien says conservation will be a statewide effort, especially when it comes to saving the chinook salmon the whales feed on. The Task Force is partnering with a salmon recovery network that works locally across Washington to protect the fish.
"We are fortunate that this statewide salmon recovery network will be working with us to provide both short- and long-term recommendations on habitat needs, as well as the need for clean and plentiful water," she explains.
Solien says this plan will test the Northwest's ability to tackle big issues in the environment.
"We cannot fail," she stresses. "This is a regional effort that has to succeed."