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Better enforcement of habitat protection for endangered fish may be key to orca survival

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
A house fronted with a concrete seawall along the Puget Sound stands adjacent to a more natural area of beach in Seattle. Seawalls prevent erosion, but they alter beaches and disrupt habitat for juvenile salmon, forage fish and other species.

If you want to keep Puget Sound's endangered orca whales from going extinct, you have to make sure they have enough to eat. That’s a key message from members of Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca recovery task force.

A bill to increase availability of Chinook salmon – the orcas' preferred food – is making its way through the Legislature. Other proposals put forward by the task force have to do with increasing hatchery production or the amount of spill ushering juvenile salmon over the Columbia River dams and out to sea.

House Bill 1579is mostly about protecting fish habitat by enforcing existing law, so that the salmon have places to spawn and successfully reproduce once they come home. The habitat also is crucial for smaller forage fish that the salmon eat.

“This is a really darn important bill from my perspective – to protect orcas, protect the investments that you all have made in salmon recovery, as well as protecting our state and tribal fisheries,” said Jeff Davis, assistant director for habitat with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The law at the heart of this is Washington state's hydraulic code, which is supposed to protect fish life from construction impacts in state waters. But on Tuesday, Davis and others told legislators in the House Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources Committee that it's not working. Salmon habitat is still shrinking because of illegal construction and permit violations.

Right now, the agency’s main enforcement tool is through criminal charges that often don't actually end up protecting habitat and incur lengthy and expensive legal battles. The bill would allow the department to dramatically increase civil penalties, from $100 per violation per day to $10,000 per violation. But Davis said it also would provide new ways to get people to follow the rules.

“We would rather work with people to make sure they’re in compliance so that there aren’t impacts to fish," Davis said, without using criminal authority.

He told the committee that the department has already had some successes trying this out in a pilot program funded by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Supporters said it would simply give WDFW the same tools that other agencies have, to enforce environmental laws and deter habitat destruction.

Jay Manning is chair of the Puget Sound Partnership's Leadership Council, which guides that state agency’s efforts to restore health to Puget Sound. He says HB 1579 one of the most important orca recovery bills before the Legislature this session.

“Without good habitat, we cannot restore salmon," Manning said. "And without salmon recovery, orca recovery is highly unlikely.” 

The bill also removes catch limits on non-native fish that prey on Chinook salmon, such as walleye, bass and catfish.

Tribes, commercial fishermen and environmental groups testified in favor. The Association of Washington Business and Washington Farm Bureau testified against, saying they still have questions about the increased regulatory burden, which would apply in waterways statewide.

The bill is one of several recommended by the governor's orca recovery task force.

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