OLYMPIA – Thursday was a good day for Washington orcas in the Legislature.
The Senate and House each passed bills to protect the 74 remaining southern resident orca pods, including a package of bills containing recommendations by a task force intended to “give orcas a chance,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a Thursday news conference.
One bill that passed the Senate 25-24 would allow state departments to regulate products containing harmful chemicals to keep them out of the environment.
Immediate and comprehensive action needs to be taken on unsafe chemicals, said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.
“This chemical-by-chemical-by-chemical approach is not cutting it when it comes to protecting our health and the health of marine mammals in particular,” Rolfes said.
Under the bill, the departments of Ecology and Health would identify products containing unregulated but harmful chemicals and prohibit manufacturers from including those chemicals or require they warn consumers of the chemicals’ presence. They could be prohibited if the departments decided that was necessary to protect orcas or other species.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said the Legislature should be cautious before granting so much authority to “unelected bureaucrats.”
The House and Senate each passed separate bills that would reduce vessel noise for orcas that makes it difficult for the whales to navigate. The bills also would establish minimum distances boats must stay from orcas and create a commercial whale-watching license. The Senate bill also establishes a speed limit for boats near orcas.
Noise pollution makes it hard for orcas to find fish, Rolfes said.
“I think it will give the whales the protections that they need so that they have some quiet, they have the space they need to be with their family, and they have the ability to fish,” she said.
Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, said noise reduction is not the primary challenge facing orcas and thinks the Legislature should do more, but voted yes.
“At least it’s something we can do something about now,” Wagoner said.
The Senate bill passed 46-3; the House bill passed 78-20.
The Senate also unanimously passed a bill that would add educational materials for whale watching to the Boating Safety Education Program.
In the House, a bill intended to increase the number of chinook salmon for orcas passed 59-39. The bill would loosen catch limits on nonnative fish and require a license for forage fish.
Another bill in the House, which passed 70-28, would invest in oil-spill prevention by requiring tug escorts for small oil vessels in the Puget Sound. The bill would also require the Department of Ecology to develop risk assessment and emergency response plans.
House bills now go to the Senate, and Senate bills to the House, for further consideration.
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