Gov. Inslee signs legislation to protect orcas

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The state is taking big steps to save the Southern Resident orca population.

Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed new legislation to protect the whales and the salmon they eat.

"These bills give me hope that we can protect these iconic species for decades to come,” Inslee said.

There are just 75 Southern Resident orcas left in the Puget Sound.

“Orca recovery is going to take a long time: unfortunately, salmon recovery is going to take a long time, but these are the kinds of things that we need to get started on right now, so that our children aren't standing here having this same conversation,” said Laura Blackmore, Puget Sound Partnership Executive Director.

Scientists have said orcas don't have enough to eat. The state is taking steps to protect the Chinook salmon population, which is the whales' main food source.

Workers also plan to reduce pollution by regulating toxic chemicals and using tugs to escort oil tankers and barges in the Rosario Strait.

"We need to be doing the work to get toxic pollution out of the water and out of our food chain and the orcas' food chain. If we weren't doing that, then the orcas would continue to decline. They'd continue to have chemicals in their breast milk feeding their babies poison, in essence. This is a wonderful, wonderful day,” Blackmore said.

Another bill limits whale watching.

Boats must now stay 300 yards away from Southern Resident killer whales and 400 yards behind their path, which is more than three football fields away. Boats must also slow down to 7 knots, or about 8 miles an hour, when they're within a half mile of the whales.

“We love our whales, we want to go see them, but we need to give them space,” Blackmore said.

The Orca Recovery Task Force worked for years to create some of the new laws.

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