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State lawmakers pass sweeping protections for Puget Sound orcas

Southern resident orcas. (AP)

The Washington state House and Senate passed four bills this month providing sweeping protections for Puget Sound’s ailing orca population.

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The quartet of bills were passed between April 10 and April 15, and cover a variety of measures, including whale watching, pollution, and more. Each legislative body passed amendments which need to be approved by their counterparts before heading to the governor’s desk for final approval.

The first to get the OK from the House and Senate was HB 1579, providing aid to the endangered Chinook salmon population, the primary prey for Puget Sound’s orcas.

Next was HB 1578, making it so that tug boats will need to serve as escorts for barges, in hopes of using them to prevent toxic oil spills.

SB 5577 has been one of the more controversial bills throughout this whole process, originally proposing a 650 yard buffer zone for whale watching boats.

Many in the industry argued that such a buffer zone was akin to a ban, requiring boats to operate at 450 yards over the previous allotment.

After a good deal of back and forth in the Legislature, lawmakers eventually landed on a 300 yard buffer zone for stationary whale watching, and 400 yards for following orcas on the move. The bill also sets a speed limit of 7 knots inside of a half-mile radius of any orca.

The fourth bill makes it so the Washington State Department of Ecology can prioritize regulation for consumer products with chemicals that would prove toxic to “sensitive species,” including southern resident killer whales, salmon, and forage fish.

In total, there are just 75 orcas in the Puget Sound area, a 30-year low for the region. A variety of factors have been cited for the decline in population, including: a lack of orca’s primary prey, Chinook salmon; noise pollution from boats which makes hunting difficult; and toxic contaminants to food and water.

Meanwhile, steps are being taken on the side of state government, marked by Gov. Jay Inslee’s ambitious $1.1 billion budget for targeted solutions to save Northwest orcas.

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