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Suspending whale-watching tours, breaching dams recommended to save orcas

FILE - In this Aug. 7, 2018, file photo, Southern Resident killer whale J50 and her mother, J16, swim off the west coast of Vancouver Island near Port Renfrew, B.C. Teams searched Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, for the sick, critically endangered orca in the waters of Washington state and Canada, but a scientist who closely tracks the population in the Pacific Northwest said he believes the whale, known as J50, has died. (Brian Gisborne/Fisheries and Oceans Canada via AP, file)

Puyallup, Wash. - Members of Governor Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force worked late into the Tuesday evening to finalize a long list of recommendations designed to save the endangered whales.

“My hope is that this will be a package of recommendations to address all the threats and that we do take bold steps and implement change and address all the threats that are impacting the whales,” said Lynne Barre who is the recovery coordinator for Southern Resident Killer Whales at NOAA Fisheries.

On Monday, a pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales was spotted not far from the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal. The majestic orcas forge for salmon deep into Puget Sound during the fall and winter but their primary food source, Chinook salmon, is scarce.

“The southern residents have declined over the last decade. This is really a critical time to do all we can to address all the threats,” said Barre who is also part of the task force.

Governor Inslee called for the Orca Task Force earlier this year in response to the whales’ decline. Their plight impacted people all over the world after a female killer whale carried her dead baby for 17 days through the Salish Sea.

“It’s been really challenging, but I think it’s raised awareness about the issues that face these whales,” said Barre. “It’s brought more people to the table and that’s the kind of support we need to implement critical actions.”

The struggles that are threatening the population are what stakeholders from across the state of Washington gathered to solve.

The group has developed 36 recommendations that focus on three goals: increasing Chinook salmon, decreasing vessel disturbance and reducing expose to contaminates.

“If we don’t take bold steps, we aren’t going to get another chance,” said State Senator Kevin Ranker who is also part of the task force. “These whales are on their last leg.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, task force members voted to recommend that commercial and recreational whale watching for Southern Resident Killer Whales be suspended for the next three to five years.

Another controversial recommendation involves creating a stakeholder process to discuss potential breaching or removal of the lower Snake River Dams.

“I think we’ve made some real progress in recognizing we need to bring all the stakeholders to the table that would be impacted by that kind of recommendation,” said Les Purce who is the co-chair of the South Resident Killer Whale Task Force.

While some of the recommendations could be implemented immediately with executive action from the governor, others would need legislative action and money.

“I have hope that we can recover the whales,” said Barre.

The final report and recommendations will be delivered to the governor by November 16.

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