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Friday, August 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Salmon and orcas linked, Legislature told

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 29, 2019, 9:58 p.m.

An endangered female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle on Jan. 18, 2014. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
An endangered female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle on Jan. 18, 2014. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Just as salmon and orcas are tied together in the Northwest ecosystem, they are being constantly linked in legislative discussions this year.

Proposals for new water projects, to fight climate change and possibly even test a new system to shoot fish over river-blocking dams in plastic tubes, emphasize the positive effects on salmon, which in turn could help keep the southern resident orca pod from going extinct.

“The orcas are going to need us to do a lot of big things and a lot of little things,” Leonard Forsman, of the Suquamish Tribe, told the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee

The link is obvious: Salmon, particularly the chinook variety, are the orcas’ favorite meal; low numbers of the former generally coincide with declining numbers of the latter.

On Tuesday, Forsman and other members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force urged the committee to approve a long list of changes to state law aimed at helping salmon. Among the recommendations are giving the Department of Fish and Wildlife more enforcement authority over certain water projects, which would require plans “for the proper protection of fish life.” The department would offer technical assistance to correct violations and to issue stop-work orders, and civil penalties for those who don’t comply.

It would also remove bass, channel catfish and walleye – which can prey on young migrating salmon – from the list of game fish that require a fishing license.

“This is not trumped up,” said Jay Manning of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council. “Without salmon recovery, orca recovery is unlikely.”

Also on Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state Department of Ecology is proposing increases in the amount of water that will be spilled over eight dams – four on the Lower Snake River and four on the Columbia – this spring and the next two as a way of determining whether it will help more young salmon survive the trip to the ocean.

The goal is to spill more water without reducing the amount of power generated by the dams. The Bonneville Power Administration, which manages the dams, has negotiated an agreement to allow more spills, and the Ecology Department has authority over the amount of dissolved oxygen and nitrogen that can be in that water.

“This is an important short-term action we can take to help inform our decisions about what will work over the long term,” Inslee said in announcing the proposal.

Later Tuesday, the Senate Agriculture Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee considered a proposal to sell about $5 billion in bonds, and spend $500 million every two years, to improve systems that store water, reduce flooding and stormwater pollution, and remove barriers that keep salmon and steelhead from getting upstream to spawn or downstream on their journey to the ocean. The state faces a court order to remove inadequate culverts and other infrastructure that blocks streams.

The committee also heard a pitch from a company that says it has a better and cheaper way than fish ladders to get adult salmon over the dams and juvenile salmon downstream. Whooshh Innovations displayed a system that sprays salmon with water as it pushes them with air pressure through large plastic tubes.

Vince Bryan, chief executive officer of Whooshh, said fish that are transported with that system end up farther upstream than those that climb a fish ladder, and “are not damaged and stressed out.” The system also scans each fish so it can separate and cull out invasive species from the salmon.

The company is asking for state support and $2.1 million to test the system this year, with a scanner at Bonneville Dam, the first one on the Columbia-Snake system, to get data on every fish that goes upriver and a transport system at Chief Joseph Dam, the last dam, during the summer chinook season.

Sen. Kevin Van de Wege, D-Sequim, said committee members seem interested in the system, and would be willing to send letters of support to Congress and federal agencies, but made no promises about financial support.

“Hopefully, you’ll show up in our capital budget and operating budget,” Van de Wege said.

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