By Taylor McAvoy
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
A far-reaching package of laws aimed at clean water, orca whale protection, and phasing out fish farms in the Salish Sea could come before state legislators this year.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, plans to introduce the Salish Sea Protection Act that would fund oil spill prevention, update response plans if an oil spill happens, establish rescue tugboat efforts and coordinate emergency efforts with Canadian officials.
His proposed Orca Whale Protection Act is threefold. The bills would focus on restoring the lack of salmon as a food source for the whales, addressing the toxins in their food web, and mitigating noise pollution from barges and tankers.
The populations of orca whales and Chinook salmon, one of the whale’s primary food sources, are declining according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent 2016 Health of the Salish Sea report. Marine water quality has also shown long-term decline in the Puget Sound region over the last 10 years.
Ranker emphasized the risk of oil spills in the Salish Sea from barges with more capacity for oil transport.
The orca whale bills essentially would increase enforcement of orca whale protection laws already in place requiring a certain distance between tankers and the whales’ habitat. The legislation would help the state Department of Fish and Wildlife operate a permanent vessel dedicated solely to orca whale law enforcement.
In response to thousands of Atlantic salmon escaping to Puget Sound, Ranker is also proposing legislation to eliminate new leases for net pens used to raise Atlantic salmon net and other non-native fish. The new legislation would update 25-year-old regulations.
“If we like seeing orcas and wild salmon on our coast, we cannot continue to industrialize our coasts,” President of Sea Legacy Cristina Mittermier said, adding that Sea Legacy is not against healthy industry.
Cooke Aquaculture, one of the largest Atlantic salmon farming corporations using the net pens, filed suit against the Department of Natural Resources after a notice to terminate the company’s long-standing lease to operate a salmon farm in Port Angeles. Cooke Aquaculture said in the lawsuit that the decision to terminate the lease is not supported by recent facts and will result in unnecessary loss of already scarce rural jobs.
Mittermier, who is a marine biologist, said potential legislation eliminating new leases on Atlantic salmon net pens comes in the nick of time. She said a large portion of farmed salmon have a virus that attacks the heart functions of salmon. When farmed salmon escape, the virus can infect wild salmon and other native fish, she said.
“We acknowledge that the fish escapement prompted some understandable fears and concerns about the impact of Atlantic salmon on the health of native stocks, but we are urging lawmakers to recognize that these fears are not borne out by the history or the best available science,” Joel Richardson, vice president of public relations for Cooke Aquaculture wrote in a statement.
Richardson’s statement claims that Ranker’s Senate Bill 6086 would end Cooke Aquaculture’s permit to operate in the Puget Sound, costing more than 100 jobs. Ranker, however, said that the bill he is proposing would phase out the net pens they use over seven years, allowing the farms to maintain leases they already have. He said the bill also includes a re-training program for current employees to support other forms of aquaculture.
Richardson said Cooke Aquaculture is supportive of other legislative approaches to regulating salmon net pens, including inspections of net pen facilities and a study of the impacts on local ecology.
The bill on potentially eliminating the new leases on the salmon net pens was heard in committee on Tuesday afternoon.
Ranker’s protection package, coincidentally, came shortly after U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced the National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program on Thursday, Jan. 4. The program opens about 90 percent of the nation’s offshore reserves.
The draft of the national program proposes 47 potential lease sales across the nation, seven of which are off the Pacific coast. The Strait of Juan de Fuca leads from the Pacific coast into the Salish Sea.