At its Oct. 8 meeting, the San Juan County Council missed an important opportunity to make a significant contribution to promote the survival of our precariously endangered southern resident killer whales.
These orcas almost feed exclusively on Chinook salmon, whose juveniles often forage in our waters before moving to open ocean. Thus anything islanders can do to enhance the survival of these young salmon — for example, making sure their habitats are not impacted by human activities — will, in the long run, benefit the orcas by making more of their favorite prey available. That means adopting measures to protect and enhance shoreline areas and eelgrass meadows where the juveniles forage on their way to the Pacific.
So why would the San Juan County Council not do everything in its power to protect this marine food web on which the orca depend?
The Friends of the San Juans has been arguing for greater protection for orca, salmon and forage fish for over seven years while the county was updating its Shoreline Management Plan. After completion earlier this year, we petitioned the Growth Management Hearings Board regarding seven elements and received favorable rulings on three: improving watershed mapping to aid mitigation within individual watersheds, creating tracking of cumulative impact, and tightening requirements on shoreline armoring.
Public testimony at the Planning Commission and County Council compliance hearings enthusiastically supported bold actions to protect the orcas and their marine food web.
But at the recent meeting, councilmember Rick Hughes asked, “What are the minimum changes we need to do to be compliant?” And Jamie Stephens echoed this sentiment, asking, “Is this going above and beyond what we have to do?”
As a member of the Governor’s Orca Task Force, Stephens should instead be seeking ways in which our county could help the orcas, not seeking bare-minimum compliance with the Growth Management Act. And perhaps the most important contribution San Juan County can make is to preserve and protect forage-fish habitats around our islands.
Helping the orca survive will require much more than a minimalist approach toward stewardship of the healthy, productive marine environment needed.
Friends of the San Juans