Big wins for ocean health: report from the 2021 state legislative session

Orca whale breaching above the ocean surface.


The 2021 legislative session looked different this year due to COVID-19. All legislative committees and votes were held virtually, and the capitol campus was closed to the public. Even with the switch to remote advocacy, the Seattle Aquarium was able to successfully advocate for science-based measures to protect our marine environment. Join us as we take a look back at some highlights from this session.

Wins for a healthy ocean

Reducing plastic pollution
We worked closely with partners to pass Senate Bill 5022, which helps protect the health of our ocean by cutting back on harmful and unnecessary single-use plastics.

  • This bill bans expanded polystyrene foam (plastic foam) food service ware, packing peanuts and recreational coolers starting in 2023.
  • Beginning in 2022, food services businesses may provide single-use utensils, straws, condiment packets and cold-beverage lids only when the customer confirms they want them. This will significantly reduce unnecessary plastic waste. While five other states have addressed plastic straws (through bans or opt-in policies), Washington state is the first to take this action on the other single-use items.
  • Manufacturers of plastic beverage bottles, trash bags and household cleaning and personal-care containers will be required to use post-consumer recycled content. 

Protecting nearshore marine waters
With the passage of SB 5145, Washington state prohibited seabed mining leases for hard minerals—like gold, titanium and more—in state waters. Seabed mining is an emerging global threat that would devastate fragile marine ecosystems. We joined our partners in testifying in support of this bill.

Supporting orca recovery
We are grateful to the state legislature for an operating budget that includes funding for Quiet Sound, which will help reduce underwater noise from ships and make it easier for the critically endangered orcas to find scarce salmon. Our ocean policy manager, Nora Nickum, advocated for this funding in a Quiet Sound op-ed in the Seattle Times with NRDC’s senior advocate for Quiet Seas, Regan Nelson.

A crowd on the steps of the Washington State capitol holding signs advocating for healthy oceans and against plastic pollution.
In this pre-pandemic photo, Seattle Aquarium staff join others for Environmental Lobby Day (January 30, 2020) to advocate for healthy oceans.

Advancing environmental justice
The Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act (SB 5141) adds an essential racial-equity lens to the environmental program work done by the state, and we were glad to endorse it. It also creates an Environmental Justice Council that will work with state agencies to ensure equitable community engagement. We congratulate Front and Centered on the passage of the HEAL Act—a vital step to ensure a healthy environment for all.

Mitigating climate change
The transportation sector is responsible for nearly half of our climate and air pollution in Washington. We joined partners in urging the legislature to adopt a Clean Fuel Standard (HB 1091) and support a transportation system that prioritizes equity and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. We celebrate the passage of the Clean Fuel Standard, which will protect our climate and clean our air.

Looking ahead

This session was a huge success, but there is still more work to do to protect the ocean.

In the next Washington state legislative session, the Seattle Aquarium and our partners will promote additional measures to reduce plastic pollution and improve our recycling system. We will also continue working to advance salmon recovery and push House Bill 1117 across the finish line. This bill, which would ensure that salmon recovery is integrated with local land use planning under the Growth Management Act, passed the House this year but did not get a vote on the Senate floor in time. 

In the meantime, we will continue our work on federal policy—collaborating with aquariums across the country—in areas like plastic pollution, climate change, orca recovery, coral reef restoration and more.

Thank you

Thank you to Senators Das, Saldaña, Van De Wege and Stanford and Representatives Berry, Fitzgibbon and Lekanoff for sponsoring these important bills to protect the health of our ocean.

We also want to extend a huge thank-you to everyone who participated in our action alerts. Constituent calls and emails helped get bills passed! (If you didn’t receive our email action alerts, please consider joining our policy email list.) 

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