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Orca Concerns Take Center Stage In 2017 'State Of The Sound' Report

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
In this July 31, 2015, file photo, an orca or killer whale breaches in view of Mount Baker, some 60 miles distant, in the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands, Wash.

The state agency charged with leading the restoration of Puget Sound says it cannot meet its inaugural goal of recovering the ecosystem by 2020.

That’s one of the takeaways from the Puget Sound Partnership’s 2017 “State of the Sound” report, which comes out Wednesday. The reports are issued every two years.

Ten years into its mission, the agency says some progress has been made, especially on projects that respond directly to investment such as restoration of floodplains and estuaries.

“It’s becoming clear that we’ve figured out how to do this Puget Sound recovery thing – something that there really was never a roadmap for,” said Sheida Sahandy, Executive Director of the partnership.

She says they know how to do it, but they need a lot more funding. The 2017 report shows improvement on only 10 of the 50 indicators they track. It also shows a 73 percent funding gap for the agency’s action agenda.

One of the indicators they’re most concerned about right now is the number of Southern Resident Killer Whales, which has fallen to just 76 individuals.

A leading theory is the whales are starving because they cannot find enough Chinook salmon, the endangered fish that the resident orcas eat almost exclusively. There is increasing concern that the iconic whales are on a path to extinction.

"We just lost two more of them and not only are we at a 30-year low,”  Sahandy said, “but when we look at what is causing them to look less and less viable, it’s stuff that’s going to get worse.”

She says with more and more people moving to the region, water pollution is expected to increase. The impending expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline introduces the prospect of as much as a sevenfold increase in vessel traffic.

The partnership’s Leadership Council is taking up a resolution ina special meeting Wednesday to accelerate recovery of Chinook Salmon, which have dwindled due to habitat loss and toxic chemicals. The partnership is also discussing ways to calm vessel traffic or create more protective zones for whales where they may be feeding or hunting their prey.  

Sahandy says despite the bad news, it’s exciting to see momentum building on this issue. She has heard from cities, counties and even groups in Canada, all wanting to help save the orcas.

“I haven’t seen this kind of energy around an issue for a while, and it’s really nice to see people stepping forward and all trying to figure out, ‘Okay how are we going to do this?’  Because nobody wants to see the orcas die,” she said.                                                                 

The Puget Sound Partnership gave a special presentation on the state of the orcas to Governor Jay Inslee last month.

The governor is working on a new orca action plan, which is expected in the next few weeks.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to