Puget Sound orcas surface near Tacoma. Photo by Mike Charest/Flickr

Puget Sound orcas surface near Tacoma. Photo by Mike Charest/Flickr

Orca Protection Act aims to protect Pacific Northwest’s iconic whales

Senator Kevin Ranker says the orca population in Puget Sound is down to 83, the lowest it had ever been.

Washington state’s orca whale population could receive a wealth of new legislative support, as a Senate committee Tuesday afternoon heard a bill that would require the state to add greater protections for the marine mammals, which are on the U.S. endangered species list.

Senate Bill 6268, comes from Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, as part of his Salish Sea Protection package, which also includes bills that address oil spill prevention and salmon farms.

Ranker calls the bill the Orca Protection Act and said the impressive creatures have been an important part of his political career since the very beginning.

In 2009, before being sworn in for the first time as a senator, Ranker met with scientists and policy thinkers to come up with a plan to save the whales. The senator said the orca population in Puget Sound was down to 83, the lowest it had ever been.

Ranker said the scientists told him the population may not be sustainable and could die out, but the legislator from San Juan County was resolute in his response:

“Not on my watch; let’s do something about this.”

More than eight years later, the population has fallen to 76, according to Penny Becker from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Becker said the whales that are still around are in poor health and are struggling to raise their young.

Ranker identified three factors as having the greatest impact on orca populations: toxins, lack of food and noise pollution. The senator has sponsored two other bills that target the first, while SB 6268 is designed to address the latter two.

Noise creates problems for both orcas and their salmon food source, Ranker said. Boats traveling at high speeds in the sound can scare orcas, but can also scare off the fish that make up their subsistence. Ranker said this problem has been identified by federal and independent researchers.

According to Ranker, noise is also an issue because it interferes with the whales’ sonar, rendering them unable to find food via echolocation.

“It doesn’t matter how many salmon are in the sea if the orcas can’t hear to find them,” said Donna Sandstrom, founder of the Whale Trail, at SB 6268’s public hearing Tuesday afternoon. The Whale Trail is a series of sites in Washington where the public can view orcas and other marine mammals.

SB 6268 addresses noise issues by requiring that boats stay at least 400 yards away from orcas and travel no faster than 7 knots, about 8 mph, when in their vicinity.

At the bill’s public hearing more than a dozen people signed in to support the bill, with none speaking out in opposition.

SB 6268 would also obligate Fish & Wildlife to send out a dedicated whale patrol boat 100 days over a 22-week period each year, which Ranker said would go a long ways in ensuring boaters do not break the law. The patrols would require some extra funding, which Ranker said was well worth the result.

“When you see blue lights on the water, all of a sudden every boat operator is following the law,” he said. “There are some issues that we can take on right now, and this is clearly one of them.”

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@courierherald.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.courierherald.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 500 words or less.

More in Northwest

West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Ecology.
EPA loans King County $96.8 million to prevent untreated water from spilling into Puget Sound

Loan comes a week after an over 10 million gallon overflow into the Puget Sound and Lake Washington.

Courtesy photo
Survey shows rent debt to be disproportionately distributed among minorities

More than half of Black renters surveyed said they owed rent money from previous months.

National Guard troops, pictured Jan. 11 at the state Capitol in Olympia, have been on standby in case of violent protests. (Photo by Roger Harnack, Cheney Free Press)
At the state Capitol, a quiet day amid heightened security

There were no protests or arrests as troopers patrolled and the National Guard assumed a lower profile.

West Point Treatment Plant in Seattle. Photo courtesy of King County
Power outages cause massive wastewater spill into Puget Sound, Lake Washington

King County estimates millions gallons of untreated wastewater overflowed into surrounding waters.

Democrats in the Washington State House are proposing to pay for transportation improvements partly by raising the gas tax by 18 cents. (Sound Publishing file photo)
House Democrats lay out massive $26B transportation package funded by gas tax hike

An 18-cent gas tax increase and a fee on carbon emissions would fund new roads and more.

File photo
Report: 70 percent of gun deaths in Washington are attributable to suicide

Research done at The Firearm Injury and Policy Research Program at Harborview… Continue reading

June 2018 algae bloom. Photo courtesy of Department of Ecology
Human-caused ‘dead zones’ threaten health of Puget Sound

Wastewater treatment plants account for about 70% of the excess nutrients.

Public Health – Seattle & King County staff administering COVID-19 vaccine to a local emergency responder. COURTESY FILE PHOTO, Public Health-Seattle & King County
Residents 65 and older eligible under new COVID-19 vaccination phase

Inslee announces the move to Phase 1b; Find your eligibility through Phase Finder

Most Read