Salmon, orca recovery important as ever

An orca surfaces near San Juan Island. Over the years, the region's endangered Southern Resident orca population has decreased along with the number of chinook salmon.

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With the region’s southern resident orca population continuing to decline, Gov. Jay Inslee is calling on state agencies to work toward the recovery of the whales and the chinook salmon they rely on for food.

Inslee will issue an executive order today requesting that state agencies take immediate action and make long-term plans to recover the salmon and orca populations, according to a news release.

The southern resident orcas, sometimes referred to as killer whales, live in the Salish Sea and frequent the waters around the San Juan Islands and near Anacortes.

Although protected as an endangered species since 1995, the population has recently reached a low of 76 whales.

Federal and state wildlife managers have concluded that dwindling chinook salmon populations in the region — including the threatened Puget Sound chinook that spawn in the Skagit River watershed — water pollution, warming waters and noise from increasing vessel traffic are contributing to the decline of the whales.

Several agencies at the state, tribal and local levels have been working to protect and restore chinook and orca populations.

Inslee’s order requires state agencies, in collaboration with tribes, stakeholders and other governments, do more to develop policies to protect the fish and whales that are integral to the region’s identity and economy.

The order directs the formation of a state task force and directs that task force to coordinate its efforts with Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, California and Idaho.

The state’s supplemental budget that the Legislature passed last week also calls for chinook and orca recovery. It designates $2.2 million for orca and salmon recovery: $1.5 million in the operating budget and $695,000 in the capital budget.

That money, allocated to the state Department of Fish & Wildlife, is to be used to increase enforcement of rules regarding vessel traffic near the whales, increase chinook production at state hatcheries and support development of a long-term plan for orca recovery.

The money comes with the requirement that the agency submit a hatchery plan to the Legislature by Dec. 31.

Penny Becker of Fish & Wildlife said the state agency has been focusing more energy on chinook and orca recovery.

“There’s a lot of momentum and we are working with our partners to do more to help restore orcas,” she said.

The agency, which will soon hire two additional vessel enforcement officers, is working on an orca recovery web page and is studying whether adding or modifying state hatcheries to increase chinook production could help feed the orcas without hindering recovery of wild salmon populations, she said.

These latest state investments in orca and chinook recovery follow several years of efforts to protect and restore the two species.

Dozens of projects have been done in Skagit County with chinook salmon in mind, including the expansion of Fisher Slough.

The Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency tasked with protecting and restoring Puget Sound, called attention in November to the connection between the dwindling salmon and struggling orca populations and committed to accelerating their recovery.

Also in November, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded several grants through its Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program, including $97,000 for a Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group project.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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