An orca whale “spyhops” out of the water as whale watchers view from a tour boat in 2003 off the southeast coast of San Juan Island near Lime Kiln State Park. Washington’s orca whale population could receive legislative support, as a Senate committee last week considered a bill that would require the state to add greater protections for the marine mammals, which are on the U.S. endangered species list. (Herald file)

An orca whale “spyhops” out of the water as whale watchers view from a tour boat in 2003 off the southeast coast of San Juan Island near Lime Kiln State Park. Washington’s orca whale population could receive legislative support, as a Senate committee last week considered a bill that would require the state to add greater protections for the marine mammals, which are on the U.S. endangered species list. (Herald file)

Bill would boost protections for state’s orca population

The whales that are still around are in poor health and are struggling to raise their young.

By Alex Visser / WNPA Olympia News Bureau

OLYMPIA — Washington’s orca whale population could receive legislative support, as a Senate committee considers 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 might 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 orca population here 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 effect 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 can scare orcas, but can also scare off the fish that make up their food. 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 a public hearing on the bill. 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 way 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.”

Talk to us

More in Local News

Another ID through DNA: Who killed Rodney Johnson?

Last seen in the late 1980s, he was reported missing in 1994, the year a body was found in Lake Stickney.

COVID-19 updates for parents and guardians

Public Health Essentials! A blog by the Snohomish Health District.

Latest COVID spike may have peaked in July, data shows

New numbers are a positive step forward, but some metrics are headed in the wrong direction.

Everett man identified after being stabbed to death in fight

A man reportedly stabbed Sophan Phal, 35, Sunday night near Everett and fled the scene.

Soper Hill roundabout and pedestrian trail work wraps up

Lake Stevens and Marysville worked together on the traffic infrastructure because of nearby development.

Shouts and joy: After 75 years war’s end still unforgettable

Machias native, author of “Pilchuck Reflections,” was watching a movie in Everett when the news came.

Police dog nabs, nips man suspected of burgling smoke shops

Monroe police arrested a man after two smoke shops were broken into Monday morning.

Study: Virus cases must drop for schools to safely reopen

Infection rates are flattening, data show, but Snohomish County is far from the recommended target.

Oak Harbor Public Schools decide on plan for fall opening

Conditions which must be met for a combination of in-person education and distance learning.

Most Read