SEATTLE — A Washington state task force on critically endangered Northwest orcas wants to temporarily suspend whale-watching boat tours focused on those whales, one of three dozen recommendations to save a population that is at its lowest in over 30 years.
The group advising Gov. Jay Inslee voted Tuesday to recommend a three- to five-year moratorium on viewing southern resident killer whales by all boats in Puget Sound.
Disturbances and noise from boats can interfere with the whale's ability to find food or communicate, and supporters said it would protect the whales. Critics said it doesn't address the larger issue of dwindling food supply and it would be devastating for the industry.
The proposed moratorium would not apply to boats viewing other whales in the region, including gray or transient whales.
The endangered orcas struggle from pollution, boat noise and lack of chinook salmon, which have been declining because of dams, habitat loss and overfishing.
The task force plans to forward its recommendations to the governor next week. He'll consider the ideas as he proposes a budget and potential legislation that will also go before the Legislature.
Among the more contentious ideas, the task force is recommending that the state set up a stakeholder process to address issues related to the possible breaching or removal of the four Snake River dams in eastern Washington.
Some argue the best way to get more salmon to the starving whales is to tear down four dams on the lower Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia River, to help migrating fish.
Critics say doing so would hurt the livelihood of many who depend on those dams for navigation, recreation and hydropower.
The group also recommended spilling more water over Columbia and Snake river dams when juvenile salmon are migrating so they can avoid harm going through the turbines.
Other recommendations include supporting legislation before Congress that would make it easier for Washington, Idaho, Oregon and tribes to kill more sea lions and seals in the lower Columbia River.
Other proposals being forwarded: Establishing an emergency rescue tug to response to potential oil spills off San Juan Island; protect habitat for chinook salmon and the smaller forage fish that they eat; and boost production of hatchery chinook salmon preferred by the orcas.
Brian Goodremont, representing the Pacific Whale Watch Association, told others on the task force Tuesday that a moratorium on watching the endangered orcas would be devastating financially to the industry, cost jobs and hurt a lot of people.
"Talking about prohibitions is the nuclear option for us," he said.
This story has been updated to clarify that the proposed moratorium would apply only to boats watching the critically endangered population of orcas.