orcas in Puget Sound | KNKX

orcas in Puget Sound

Patrons watch transient orcas on a 12-passenger Maya's Legacy Whale Watching boat, after departing from Friday Harbor.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

New licensing requirements for whale watch boats working in Washington waters take effect March 1. They’re the result of years of work, both from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and from the governor’s southern resident killer whale task force, which recommended the implementation of a licensing system.

But this week, state lawmakers began considering changes that would weaken those rules.

In this photo taken in February 2015 by NOAA Fisheries, newborn orca calf L-121 swims with its mother, L-94, off Westport, with the NOAA research ship Bell M. Shimada in the background. Young orcas often do not survive past their first year of life.
NOAA Fisheries, Candice Emmons / The Associated Press

Underwater noise from ship traffic is one of the major threats to Puget Sound’s endangered Southern Resident orcas. It can interfere with the whales’ ability to communicate, navigate by echolocation and find the increasingly scarce salmon they prefer.

A recommendation from the orca recovery task force convened by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2018-19 is to reduce noise and disturbance from large vessels. Work is underway to develop a program called "Quiet Sound," which will alert ships to the presence of whales so they can re-route or slow down.

An orca is seen swimming free in the Salish Sea.
Photo by Katy Foster

UPDATE, Feb. 27, 2020: The Whale Sanctuary Project that was considering sites in Western Washington and British Columbia has announced it will not be setting up here anytime soon. It has chosen to start its work in Port Hilford, on the eastern shore of Nova Scotia. That location will be primarily dedicated to rehabilitating beluga whales that are retiring form marine parks and aquariums.

The Capitol dome is seen across Capitol Lake in Olympia. Lawmakers have passed a bill banning defenses based on a victim's gender identity or sexual orientation.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

As the new session gets underway in Olympia today, environmental groups have released their legislative priorities.

Items topping their list this year are renewed attempts to pass a clean fuels standard to reduce carbon pollution from transportation, as well as a statewide ban on thin, single-use plastic bags. 

The final meeting of Governor Jay Inslee's Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force took place at the Intellectural House on the campus of the University of Washington on October 7, 2019.
Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX

Their goal is clear: to prevent Puget Sound’s iconic Southern Resident killer whales from going extinct. Solving that problem is anything but simple.

The task force convened by Gov. Jay Inslee to save the orcas added 13 new recommendations this week, at its final meeting. The additions to the group’s so-called “Year 2 Report” cover more than 100 pages, adding climate change and population growth to the list of issues complicating orca recovery.

Raynell Morris, left, director of the Lummi Nation’s Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, listens as Lawrence Solomon (second from left), secretary of the Lummi Nation’s Business Council, announces the new name for the Southern Resident orcas.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

Earlier this summer, the Lummi Nation came to Seattle and launched a campaign to protect and revitalize the Salish Sea. The tribe is based near Bellingham, at the heart of that body of water, which extends from Puget Sound to Desolation Sound in Canada and out past Vancouver Island into the Pacific Ocean.

Whale watchers at Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island sighting members of the J and K pods of southern resident orcas on Friday July 5th after an absence of nearly 8 weeks.
Jeanne Hyde / Whale of a Purpose Blog

Whale scientists have spotted several Southern Resident orcas off the west side of San Juan Island, in Haro Strait. The sighting comes after an unprecedented absence that had many worried.  

Transient whales swim through the Salish Sea near Friday Harbor in March. While sightings of transients are growing, the endangered Southern Resident population is bordering on extinction.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

“For as the orca go, so go we.”

Those were words from Gov. Jay Inslee as he signed five bills that aim to help keep endangered Southern Resident killer whales from going extinct. All are based on recommendations from the orca recovery task force he convened last year.

Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

Members of Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca recovery task force and environmental groups supporting its work say they have four critical bills that are still in play this legislative session. They’re calling on state lawmakers to keep moving the bills forward.

Elaine Thompson / file / AP Photo

A bill to shield endangered Puget Sound orca whales from noise and other disruptions caused by vessel traffic got a first hearing in Olympia on Tuesday. The most controversial piece of the proposed legislation would implement a temporary, de facto ban on Southern Resident whale watching. 

courtesy Washington State Department of Ecology

When the Canadian government bought the controversial Trans Mountain Pipeline from Kinder-Morgan last year, it also bought a 69-mile-long spur that extends from the border with the U.S. and feeds Canadian crude to four Washington refineries.  

The change in ownership triggered a required update to the oil-spill response plan for the spur, which has been operating since the 1950s.

In this Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015 photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAA) a new baby orca swims alongside an adult whale, believed to be its mother, about 15 miles off the coast of Westport, Wash.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Candice Emmons / AP Photo

Environmental law in the U.S. regulates pollution, but often doesn’t protect the things we love.  A movement to change that by securing so-called "rights of nature" is taking hold globally – and locally, too.

Elaine Thompson / File / AP Photo

Gov. Jay Inslee received a final report and recommendations from the Orca Recovery Task Force he appointed in May. The group suggests 36 action items to keep the Southern Resident killer whales from going extinct. Among the most controversial is a temporary ban on whale watching of the endangered orcas, for three to five years.

Elaine Thompson / File / AP Photo

The state’s Orca Recovery Task Force will deliver its final recommendations to Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday. Among the controversial items on the list is a last-minute proposal for a temporary ban on whale watching tours near the endangered Southern Resident orcas.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife suggested it as an alternative to a no-go zone west of San Juan Island. It’s proposed to last three to five years.  

But some whale-watch companies are concerned it would create false impressions about their industry.

Elaine Thompson / File / AP Photo

Gov. Jay Inslee’s Orca Recovery Task Force now has 35 items on its revised draft of recommendations to help Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales.  

Members have been meeting since May and are getting ready to finalize their report. But they’re still accepting comments until midnight Monday, and they want people to get involved.  

NOAA Fisheries under NMFS research permit #19091.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca recovery task force has issued a draft report with possible recommendations. It's 53 pages long and contains about 50 detailed potential actions.

The public is invited to comment as the task force works to narrow their list before submitting it to the state Legislature.

Katy Foster / NOAA Fisheries, under permit 18786-03.

Experts say they’re preparing a plan to capture and treat a sick, critically endangered orca if there is no way to save it in the wild.  They're preparing to rescue the animal known as J-50 if she separates from her family or gets stranded while alive.

Katy Foster / NOAA Fisheries

Federal scientists and tribal fishermen have been preparing to take unprecedented action to help an ailing orca whale – if they ever see her again.

NOAA Fisheries/Vancouver Aquarium / via AP / File

A multitude of factors are harming Puget Sound’s local population of endangered orcas: water pollution, noise, loss of habitat.

But topping that list right now for many scientists is recovery of their primary food source: Chinook salmon.

Elaine Thompson / File / AP Photo

Members of Congress who represent Puget Sound are pushing back against the Trump administration’s budget for 2019 in part because it would zero out all federal funding for cleanup and recovery of the iconic ecosystem.

Elaine Thompson / File / AP Photo

Despite a very bad summer for local resident orca whales, this winter is shaping up as a premium time to see them from the shore. Orca watchers say the Southern Residents seem to be foraging for chum salmon after finding less Chinook than usual this year.

Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

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.

Courtesy of the Center for Whale Research

Corrected on October 31, 2016 - An earlier version of this story incorrectly placed the Snake River dams in Idaho. They are in Southeast Washington.

Some of the top whale researchers in the Pacific Northwest are calling on the federal government to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River in Southeast Washington. They say that’s the surest way to restore the Chinook salmon runs that endangered orcas primarily feed on.

Photo by David Ellifrit/ / Center for Whale Research

Keep your eyes peeled for killer whales. The orca pods that spend the summer in the San Juan Islands are expected to show up in Puget Sound any moment now. That’s according to the Orca Network, which tracks the killer whales via a network of volunteer spotters.