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.

More in Northwest

From left, Reps. Kristine Lytton, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, Timm Ormsby, and June Robinson announce the House Democrats’ budget proposal. <em>Photo by Josh Kelety </em>
Democratic lawmakers unveil conflicting budget proposals

Senate and House Democrats are at odds over education funding and how to cut property taxes.

Inslee and outrage

After the election of President Trump, many in Seattle and its surrounding communities let their anger be heard. Gov. Jay Inslee was one of them.

Domestic violence survivors could get new protections from workplace discrimination

The proposed bill easily passed the House of Representatives.

Photo by Visitor7/Wikimedia
Proposal to eliminate the death penalty passes the Senate

After passionate floor debate, the bill moves to the House.

Photo by Visitor7/Wikimedia
A fight over the role of unions erupts in Olympia

State Democrats push labor union-friendly bills while Republicans cry foul play.

John Kerry in Olympia to advocate for governor’s carbon tax

Former U.S. Secretary of State said “Washington has an opportunity to lead.”

Photo by Kathryn Decker/Flickr
State legislators look to “ban the box”

The House of Representatives votes to end questioning criminal history on job applications.

By Nicole Jennings
Bill expanding wrongful death actions passes the Senate

The bill would do away with a law that opponents say is antiquated and xenophobic.

Photo by Visitor7/Wikimedia
Program before lawmakers could strengthen mental health crisis response

The aim is to provide those in need with services instead of jail time.

Carbon tax plan advances in the state Senate

Bill moves out of committee with lower tax rate than governor proposed, a “monumental step.”

Light rail funding could be in trouble if car tab taxes decrease. Photo by Richard Eriksson/Flickr
Republican lawmakers call for further action on car tabs

Senate Democrat slams their efforts as “unthoughtful sledgehammers.”

Photo by Nicole Jennings
Proposed law would make tampons free for some college students

The bill would ensure that those with low incomes can have access to clean products, say proponents.