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State task force names 36 ways to save orcas. What does that mean for tearing down the dams?

How to bring southern resident killer whales back from the brink of extinction

NOAA Fisheries biologists talk about southern resident killer whales, a species that makes its home around the San Juan Islands in Washington state.
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NOAA Fisheries biologists talk about southern resident killer whales, a species that makes its home around the San Juan Islands in Washington state.

A state task force stopped short of calling for tearing down the four Lower Snake River dams in its final report on how to help critically endangered Northwest orcas.

The Southern Resident Orca Task Force, created by Gov. Jay Inslee in March, made three dozen recommendations on Friday to save the dwindling species off the coast of Washington.

The recommendations include increasing the amount of water spilled over Snake and Columbia river dams, rather than using the water for hydropower, in hopes of increasing salmon survival.

It also calls for hiring a neutral third party to establish a collaborative process — working with tribal, federal, state and local leadership — to address issues tied to possible removal of the Snake River dams.

The killer whales depend on chinook salmon for food, and the report included recommendations to increase chinook numbers that have been declining because of dams, habitat loss and overfishing.

But it also addressed other factors harming Pacific Northwest orcas, including pollution and boat noise.

It called for suspending three to five years of whale-watching boat tours focused on orcas in the Puget Sound. Boat trips for viewing other types of whales would be allowed to continue.

Reducing stormwater runoff and cleaning up PCBs also would benefit the killer whale population, it said. PCBs are a toxic compound once widely used in manufacturing.

This year the population of southern resident orcas dropped to just 74, with the deaths of three of the killer whales.

The world watched this summer as one whale, Tahlequah swam for 17 days with her dead calf.

Endangered Orcas.JPG
In this photo taken Tuesday, July 24, 2018, provided by the Center for Whale Research, a baby orca whale is being pushed by her mother after being born off the Canada coast near Victoria, British Columbia. The new orca died soon after being born. Michael Weiss AP

The task force received so many comments on hydropower and the killer whales after releasing its draft recommendations that it reviewed only 800 randomly selected comments of the 8,687 submitted.

More than 99 percent were one of two comments that were repeated verbatim.

Both of the two boiler plate messages said, “The lower Snake River Dams must go to restore chinook salmon” and also called for changing state standards to allow more water spilling over the dams.

The final report recommended that the state’s standard for dissolved gases be increased to allow more spilling over the dams, but to maintain rigorous monitoring of the impacts to fish.

More water spilling can help juvenile salmon safely move past dams on their way to the ocean, but too much can saturate water with oxygen and nitrogen that can build up in fish and kill them.

Snake River dams.JPG
Water from the Snake River rushes down a fish ladder at Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River. Staff Tri-City Herald file

The report’s proposed discussion of breaching or removing the lower Snake River dams would include a look at the economic impacts, impacts to communities and costs to mitigate negative affects. The dams play a role in barging, irrigation and recreation.

The discussion also would consider whether removing dams would help the killer whales.

Although they are critically endangered creatures, this rare compilation of clips shot by South Sound residents and KIRO 7 show that orcas remain in our midst.

“Clearly task force members were not persuaded by the faulty arguments and emotional appeals made by anti-dam activists,” Northwest RiverPartners — an alliance of farmers, utilities, ports and businesses — said in a statement.

Other proposals in the report to make more chinook available for killer whales include restoring salmon habitat, in and around Puget Sound and elsewhere; increasing hatchery salmon production; allowing anglers to catch more predatory fish, such as walleye and bass; and supporting actions to manage sea lions that feast on salmon.

Inslee said he will review the report’s proposals before finalizing his state budget and police priorities next month. The state Legislature convenes in January.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533
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