SEATTLE — Gov. Jay Inslee's orca task force met for the last time Monday, drafting new recommendations to help keep the iconic whales from going extinct.
The number of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales in the wild now stands at 73, just two more than their low of 71 in the 1970's after many were captured for aquariums.
The Southern Resident Orca Task Force was created by Inslee in March 2018 to develop long-terms plan for recovering orcas. The task force consisted of nearly 50 members including state agencies, state, tribal, federal and local governments and private sector and nonprofit organizations.
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The task force released a final comprehensive report in November 2018 that identified four main goals to increase the orca population: increasing abundance of Chinook salmon, decreasing disturbance from passing vessels, reducing exposure to contaminants and ensuring funding to support effective implementation.
At the task force's final meeting, Donna Sandstrom of The Whale Trail said she's proud of the work they've done, which led to five new state laws earlier this year.
"And I'm super worried. During this same time the orcas continued to decline," Sandstrom said.
In the last year, three adult orcas died and they've all but abandoned their summer habitat in the San Juan Islands.
"Our challenge is greater and the urgency is greater. I think we planted some wonderful seeds that are going to bear fruit for the whales but we can't take our eyes off this for a second," Sandstrom said.
The task force made 39 recommendations last year, like creating new habitat for endangered Chinook salmon, which orcas eat.
"We do need increased habitat in both the freshwater and the marine areas," said Mindy Roberts of the Washington Environmental Council.
But there are still thorny questions, like whether to remove four fish-blocking dams on the Snake River.
And a federal study found protected sea lions and harbor seals are booming, possibly eating more Chinook salmon than people catch.
"It's time to say, yes, it's a problem. Things have to be done in balance. You can't find something at optimum that feeds on an endangered species," said G.I. James of the Lummi Nation.
On Monday the task force wrote some additional recommendations and talked about how to monitor progress after it stops meeting.
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