Whale task force may punt on dams

Whale task force may punt on dams
A draft report from the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force may avoid making recommendations on what to do with the four lower Snake River dams, for now. Photo: Marine Mammal Commission

The Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force created by Governor Jay Inslee has released a draft report of recommendations on how to aid the recovery of endangered orcas that if approved as is would punt on whether the Lower snake River dams should be dismantled to improve orca food supply.

The report follows a series of work session meetings across the state in which stakeholders, activists and local community members discussed ways to reverse the trend of declining orcas. Since the March executive order creating the task force, the number of southern resident killer whales has fallen to 74, the lowest number in over three decades. In keeping with the National Martine Fisheries Service 2008 recovery plan, the task force hopes to increase the marine animal’s population by an average of 2.3 percent annually for 28 years.

The report lists a variety of problems for these orcas, including:

  • Water contaminants
  • High-frequency noise from nearby boat activity
  • Oil spills

The report is the product of three working groups focused on prey, contaminants and vessels. However, much of the report focuses heavily on growing the supply of Chinook salmon, which composes 80 percent of the killer whale’s food supply. Certain types of Chinook salmon are currently listed as an endangered species. In addition to habitat disturbances, increased consumption by other natural predators such as seals have also contributed to fewer salmon available to killer whales.

However, hatchery production of salmon has also declined in recent years, a trend the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission wants to change. One proposal under consideration calls for 50 million additional salmon in Puget Sound and the Columbia River. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) estimates this would cost $9.6 million in operating costs, $4.8 million if the agency obtained matched funding from the federal government.

However, the proposal would also require another $121 million in capital funding for new hatchery infrastructure and equipment. One of the task force’s “potential recommendations” for possible future approval includes several options to ramp up WDFW funding for hatchery production, noting that it “could play an important role” in providing food to augment long-term efforts to improve the wild salmon population.

Although it cautions that “hatcheries can also pose genetic and ecological risks to wild populations if not properly operated,” a 2012 study by the Nez Perce Tribe’s Johnson Creek Artificial Propagation Enhancement (JCAPE) Project concluded that hatchery-spawned fish “did not have a detectable negative impact on the fitness of wild fish.”

The report’s recommendation for immediate actions include:

  • Better enforcement of vessel regulations;
  • Alter state hatchery fish food to avoid certain chemicals;
  • Quieting ferries in certain areas; and
  • Prioritizing stormwater project funding for the 2019-21 biennium that aids orca recovery.

Among the “potential recommendations” not approved this year by the task force is advocating the Army Corps of Engineers dismantle the four lower Snake River dams – the Corps has previously stated it would require congressional authorization to do so. This proposal may be discussed next year and included in the 2019 recommendations made by the task force.

According to the report, one reason for putting the idea on the backburner is that a webinar on the dams is scheduled for Sept. 27, several days after the report release. As a result, some working group members “did not yet feel equipped to decide if these actions should be included, and if so, which option should be selected. After the webinar and through discussions at its October and November meetings, the task force may select the potential hydropower recommendation option.”

However, a NOAA biological opinion and its recovery plans concluded breaching the dams would only produce a “marginal change” to the amount of salmon available to killer whales.

A U.S. House committee meeting earlier this month on the Snake River dams included testimony from both agency officials that oversee the dams as well as the state’s chamber of commerce.

The public is invited to comment on the task force’s draft report until Oct. 7. Feedback will be presented to the task force at its Oct.17-18 meetings, which will also provide additional opportunity for public comment. The task force will approve its final report by Nov. 16.

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