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

The man on Iron Mountain

Chuck Pillon has been living on a 10-acre junk-filled property near Renton for decades.

Safe consumption part 3: The opposite of addiction

Final episode of our three-part series on controversial supervised consumption sites

Safe consumption: The debate

In the first of a three-part series, we enter into the heated, emotional, and sometimes bitter debate around one of the most controversial policy proposals in the country.

Dockless in Seattle

In the year since a new kind of bikeshare was launched in Seattle, the bikes have been found in many interesting spots. But is there a place for them in the region’s future?

Olympic National Park to start capturing mountain goats this summer

Park Service releases record of decision on relocating, killing animals

Legislators and activists seek solutions to farmer suicides

Agricultural workers end their own lives at a higher rate than workers in any other profession.

The Rev. Michael Curry, left, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church who gained international fame with his sermon at the royal wedding last month, was in Aberdeen on Saturday afternoon for a rally that sought to highlight homelessness. Photo by Scott Johnston
Bishop Curry speaks at Aberdeen affordable-housing rally

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church gained international fame with his sermon at the royal wedding last month.

Defendant in 1987 slayings of BC couple pleads not guilty

William Talbott of SeaTac was arraigned Tuesday in Snohomish County Superior Court.

Extremely low tide surprises Everett boaters

One boat was stranded for several hours off the Port of Everett launch.

Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg, of Vancouver Island, were found slain in Washington in 1987.
Murder charges filed in 1987 killing of young B.C. couple

The suspect’s former friends have filled in some of the missing pieces for police.

Music on the Strait festival to debut this summer in Port Angeles

The even is intended to host great live music on Labor Day weekend and give Port Angeles yet another economic draw.

Amelia Allen (left) looks down at the track as she races another driver in unweighted practice soap box derby cars June 7 on Camano Island. The 11th Stanwood-Camano Soap Box Derby takes place Saturday. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Brand-new track, permanent Camano home for Soap Box Derby

Races involving 73 cars are on Saturday at a converted ranch where striped pavement belongs to kids.