Saving the Orcas: Meetings,
by Erik Lacitis
Meetings and more meetings. Comments and more comments. Welcome to the Southern Resident Killer Whale
Task Force that’s to come up with policy recommendations to help the distressed orcas.
Wenatchee -- It can appear overwhelming, being a member of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.
There will be meetings, and more meetings, and then comments, and more comments for the SRKW, as it is known by its acronym. There will be meetings in Olympia, and Anacortes, Ellensburg and here, to make sure everybody is included.
Gov. Jay Inslee picked 44 people in March to come up with "policy recommendations" to help save the orcas. They came from state agencies, tribal groups and organizations such as Long Live the King and the Pacific Whale Watch Association. They have met twice.
Not included on the task force, which has a budget of $209,000, are representatives from the Bonneville Power Administration or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, important players in any solution to the orcas' plight since they operate dams along the Northwest rivers where the orcas' primary food source, chinook salmon, breed.
Messages to Inslee's office were not returned in time for this story.
On Tuesday at the Confluence Technology Center in Wenatchee, the task force met again, with more than 150 members of the public, mostly environmentalists, crowding into the meeting room.
Early on, a woman spoke up. The whales' plight was finally resonating with the public.
"Just take a look at the most-read articles," she said.
Those would be the heart-rending stories about J35, or Tahlequah, carrying her dead calf for 10 days as of last week. The news has gone around the globe. The stories continue even though no one has seen her since to know whether she still has it.
Then came the stories of J50, the starving young whale which is so emaciated her cranium is visible, and the desperate plans to feed her fresh chinook salmon in an attempt to stave off her death.
It's a daunting task for the task-force members.
If they cared to, the task-force members could have read ahead of time a 58-page agenda, accompanied by dozens of pages on contaminants, prey and vessels -- all acknowledged as detrimental to the dwindling pod of southern-resident killer whales.
Derek Day, a stormwater planner with the state's Department of Ecology, said his group within the task force -- it deals with contaminants -- had whittled 117 proposed actions down to eight.
Action No. 1 was changing federal law to ensure new chemicals coming on the market are tested for their toxicity.
Right now, said Day, "chemicals are innocent until proven guilty, and it's up to the government to prove they're guilty." But making such a change, he said, "would be a moon shot." The reality is, he said, "It would be very politically difficult."
As the day progressed, the task force divided into work groups and participants went through that familiar routine for anyone in an organization.
There is a "facilitator" and there is one of those note boards with white paper that keep filling up with stuff, and for good measure adding colored sticky notes.
At the end of the session, all of these boards were unfurled. Some in the crowd shifted to their smartphones.
"It's a lot of information to synthesize," said Day. He kept focused. "It's not my job to drift," he said.
The state-agency people had done a thorough job of sifting through all the action items and comments.
A "matrix" for how to help the whales cope with the vessels that disrupt their lives charted items as high, medium or low in how well they could be implemented.
"Encouraging" ferries to slow down when orcas were present had a "high" ease of implementation.
Establishing a permit program to ration recreational-boat access to orcas came up "low" in that matrix.
Most of the crowd of 150 stayed through the hours of task-force group meetings until public comment was allowed at the end.
They didn't mince words.
London Fletcher, 11, who's going into sixth grade at Blaine Middle School, walked up to the microphone and spoke in an assured voice. At the end, she got a loud ovation. She said, in part:
"The orca are starving. They don't live on our words about what to do. They live on salmon. I've been to the Snake River dams and personally witnessed these giant megaliths of death. I've seen fish pressed against the ladders, swimming in circles and getting stuck. That's not natural, that's not OK.
"Just yesterday I took another drive to the Snake River dams. With my own hands I felt the bath-warm water, water which is too hot for our local salmon to breed. We cannot let greed and bad economics win the day."
Her mother, Elizabeth Valenzuela, said her daughter had always been outspoken.
"She talked when she was a baby at three," said the mom.
Presented to the task group also were five boxes filled with emails and notes from more than 43,000 people from a 15-group coalition called the Orca Salmon Alliance.
The co-chairs of the task force said that in the past 11 days, there has been a major change in the public's concern about orcas.
"It not only captured the hearts of the public around the world, but as a task force, it has definitely added urgency," said Stephanie Solien, a longtime civic activist.
Said Thomas "Les" Purce, former president of The Evergreen State College, about coming up with concrete results:
"Is it daunting? Is it going to be hard? Yes," he said.
Next week, task-force members will get emails with the update action items, and on which they'll be asked to comment. The next full meeting after that is Aug. 28 in Anacortes.
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