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Marine Matters #1: Penny Becker is Advancing Policy to Protect Southern Resident Orcas

A small striped and spotted fish floats above a pebbly stream bed.

This is post 1 of 1 in "Marine Matters."

While our Pacific Wildway’s early focus is primarily terrestrial mammals, we aim to apply our conservation science and policy to the ocean in the future, expanding our efforts in the Pacific region to include critical coastal and marine habitat and endangered marine wildlife. In the meantime, we want to recognize the excellent work our conservation partners are doing in Washington, Oregon, and California’s waters. Marine Matters is a two-part blog post series highlighting the individuals whose efforts in the region are aligned with our conservation mission: habitat connectivity, and carnivore, keystone species, and large mammal conservation. All posts in this series…

Wildlands Network’s mission to reconnect, restore, and rewild North America does not just apply to land animals. Ocean life is diminishing at a staggering rate, due to acidification, warmer waters, pollution and toxic contamination, and unsustainable fishing. In the face of these pernicious threats, marine wildlife need protected and connected habitat more than ever.

Ocean life is an indelible part of the natural heritage of our Pacific states. Our coastline is home to myriad critically endangered keystone species, including orca, humpback, and blue whales, hammerhead sharks, hawksbill sea turtles, and Chinook and coho salmon. Nearshore and marine habitats, as well as the rivers and tributaries that feed into the sea, are fragmented and degraded, and as such, the wildlife who rely on these systems are in decline.

A pod of orcas swim together. Orcas face increasing threats to their survival and would benefit greatly from protected and connected marine habitats. Photo: © Inger / Adobe Stock

Our first Marine Matters post features Penny Becker, Conservation Policy Lead with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Penny has been with WDFW for a little over eight years, in multiple positions focused on the conservation, management, and monitoring of threatened, endangered, and other species that are not hunted or fished. She is currently working on Southern Resident orca policy and legislation in Washington. I had the opportunity to talk with Penny about her work on exciting state legislation for orcas and the importance of habitat connectivity for protecting orcas in Washington.

Rebecca Hunter: What is the goal of your policy work?

Penny Becker: The goal of my work is to develop, direct, and coordinate the protection and recovery of at-risk species, with a current focus on Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW or Southern Resident orcas).

RH: What do you do each day? What goes into accomplishing your work?

Penny Becker, Conservation Policy Lead at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, in the field. Photo: Penny Becker

PB: I develop policies, procedures, and budgets to benefit orcas and other species with colleagues in my agency, as well as with other state, federal, tribal, and private partner entities. Many times, to create the most enduring and sustainable conservation solutions, I am often called to help translate the science around species and habitats into sound policy recommendations, while also accounting for the human dimensions around the issue.

I also spend time coordinating the implementation of or modifying the “on-the-ground” tasks and framework to put policies into action. I work with other scientists and subject matter experts to frame up monitoring to determine the best way to implement or modify policies to be most effective.

RH: What are the greatest threats to Southern Resident orcas, as identified by WDFW?

PB: I’ve taken the answer for this question from our Orca Task Force report. The three major threats to Southern Resident orcas are:

Lack of prey. The Southern Resident orca diet is composed primarily of Chinook salmon. Several runs of Chinook salmon that could provide important prey for Southern Resident orcas are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. To be abundant, diverse and sustainable, Chinook need productive and protected habitat as well as a reliable supply of forage fish to feed on. Development activities and fish passage barriers such as impassable dams, tide gates and culverts have led to habitat loss for both salmon and forage fish. Salmon harvesting in fisheries in Alaska, British Columbia, off Washington’s coast or in Washington’s inland waters can further reduce the number of Chinook available for the orcas. Hatchery production could play an important role in increasing prey abundance for Southern Residents but also poses genetic and ecological risks to wild populations if not managed carefully. Addressing lack of prey therefore requires addressing all these issues: habitat, forage fish, hydropower, predation, harvest and hatcheries.

Disturbance from noise and vessel traffic. Vessels transiting near Southern Resident orcas can produce underwater noise that masks or impairs orca communication and echolocation (the method orcas use to find their prey). This makes it harder for orcas to find food and reduces the time orcas devote to foraging by almost 20 percent, reducing their potential prey intake and increasing their energy expenditure.

Toxic contaminants. Southern Residents and their prey are exposed to an ever-increasing mixture of pollutants in the marine environment, particularly in the Salish Sea. These toxins can reduce salmon survival by making them more susceptible to disease, which in turn means less food is available to the orcas. The toxic contaminants can also reduce immunity and cause reproductive disruption in orcas.

Orcas face numerous threats to their survival, including lack of prey, disturbance from noise and vessel traffic, toxic ocean contaminants, and more. Photo: © prochym / Adobe Stock

In addition to these three threats, climate change and ocean acidification are overarching threats that will exacerbate current stresses on the Southern Residents, primarily through the food web as warmer stream and ocean temperatures, lower summer stream flows, heavier winter rainstorms and sea-level rise impact salmon, forage fish and the entire ecosystem that orcas rely upon.

RH: How is habitat connectivity integrated into the agency’s orca management plans?

PB: Habitat connectivity is critically important to salmon, which are the primary prey for Southern Resident orcas. Every year, millions of Chinook salmon, which are preferred by orcas, swim thousands of miles through oceans and rivers to reach their native spawning grounds to reproduce. Salmon are often blocked from completing their journey by barriers, such as dams and culverts. Hydroelectric and water storage dams throughout the Pacific Northwest have significant but varied impacts on Chinook that orcas prey upon in the Salish Sea, at the mouth of the Columbia and other rivers, and along the West Coast. When Chinook can’t reach their habitat, they can’t reproduce and build their populations.

Identification of, along with modifications and removal of barriers to improve fish passage are key habitat management actions identified for freshwater environments in Chinook recovery plans…

A small striped and spotted fish floats above a pebbly stream bed.
Chinook salmon. Photo: Roger Tabor

RH: Can you talk about the new orca legislation that was introduced in the last state legislative session? How will this legislation help orca recovery?

PB: There is significant new legislation and funding to support recovery of imperiled Southern Resident killer whales, with most of the legislation relating back to recommendations of Governor Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force.

Governor Inslee requested three bills: 2SSB5577 was passed this session to help us better protect Southern Resident Killer Whales from vessel disturbances and underwater noise. Enhanced legal protections will include increases to the distance that boaters need to keep between themselves and the whales—400 yards in front and behind, and never less than 300 yards. In addition, any boat within a half mile of the whales will be required to slow engine speeds to seven knots, or less. To reduce daily and cumulative vessel impacts, a commercial whale watching license program was also created.

2SHB1579 provides additional protections for forage fish and salmon, which Southern Resident Killer Whales need to survive. The legislation gives WDFW more tools and authority regarding permitting construction projects built in aquatic environments that can affect forage fish and salmon habitat. Additionally, the legislation requires anyone fishing for smelt in marine waters to obtain a license to provide for better management of this important forage fish species. It also directed the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to adopt rules to loosen bag limits for bass, walleye, and channel catfish in waters with salmon, to reduce the number of smolts eaten by predators.

ESHB1578 also passed this legislative session to improve the safety of oil transportation. The legislation requires tugboat escorts for some oil tankers as they move through Southern Resident Killer Whale territory in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Rosario Strait, and connected waterways, to prevent the potentially devastating impact of an oil spill.

Two other bills (not governor request legislation) were also successful this year: SSB5135 establishes the pollution prevention for healthy people and Puget Sound act, which will protect public health, the environment, and orcas. SB5918 requires boating regulations and guidelines around Southern Resident orcas to be included in the Washington State boating safety education program to provide for quieter and more disturbance-free waters near the whales.

Ocean life is diminishing at a staggering rate, due to acidification, warmer waters, pollution and toxic contamination, and unsustainable fishing. In the face of these pernicious threats, marine wildlife need protected and connected habitat more than ever.

RH: What can readers do to support your efforts? Is there a direct action people can take today?

PB: There are many things that you can do to help orcas! Several of our conservation partners have updated suggestions for actions you can do. Here are suggestions from Washington Environmental Council:

  • Get involved in a local habitat restoration project: Organizations across the region from Conservation Districts, to Salmon Recovery Lead Entities, to Salmon Enhancement Groups, to state and local agencies to local nonprofits like EarthCorps are working every day to restore salmon habitat. They could use the help of volunteers like you.
  • Contact your congressional delegation, urging them to support federal appropriation dollars for critical salmon habitat restoration needs in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Contact your city council members, mayor, and county commissioners and get involved in local processes and decisions about habitat conservation and development in your community.
  • Follow the new boating regulations near orcas and “Be Whale Wise” when you are on the water in a boat or kayak. Go to bewhalewise.org for the latest on U.S. and Canadian boating laws and guidelines before you head out on the water.
  • Create shoreline friendly fish habitat if you are a shoreline property owner to support salmon that supports orcas. If we restore our shorelines, there will be more forage fish such as sand lance and smelt, to support more salmon for the Orcas.

For more information on Wildlands Network’s conservation in the Pacific region, check out our Pacific Wildway. Receive e-news on Wildlands Network events and policy updates by signing up for our newsletter.

More posts from Marine Matters

  1. Marine Matters #1: Penny Becker is Advancing Policy to Protect Southern Resident Orcas, May 29, 2019

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