Healthy Habitats For Healthy Salmon And Orcas

The Seattle Aquarium and our partners in the Environmental Priorities Coalition have been working hard to increase protections for the critically endangered southern resident orcas. In the 2019 legislative session, we helped to pass four key orca recovery bills.

The southern resident orcas swim up and down the West Coast—from Alaska to Northern California, and here in the Salish Sea—foraging for salmon. But salmon runs have declined to only about 10% of their historic numbers, which is linked to a population of starving and endangered orcas. We recently learned that another orca, Mega, has likely died. With the population at its lowest number in at least 40 years, more action is urgently needed to get the orcas off the path to extinction before it’s too late. And right now, we have a chance to take a critical next step in the Washington legislature.

Increasing development has resulted in decreasing salmon

Chart of Washington State population and predicted growth

Washington state is experiencing an incredible growth rate. Current state regulations stipulate new developments must make up for any damage they cause to ecosystems—known as “no net loss.” But what does that mean? Say you’re a developer putting in a new dock, and the structure damages 100 square feet of kelp habitat that’s home to fish, crabs and numerous other ocean creatures. Under current state laws, you’d have to make up for that through a restoration project that, ideally, would compensate for the habitat lost. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and these projects often aren’t bringing the damaged ecosystems back to their baseline—they may even be in a different place with a different kind of habitat.

This has contributed to declines of important salmon and herring habitats throughout Washington state, and the situation is getting worse as our region sees more growth. Every year, nearly 2,000 acres of ecologically important lands are damaged in the Puget Sound region alone. Habitats in our state are simply too degraded right now to support healthy salmon populations, and they are continuing to decline, even under the “no net loss” standard. When there aren’t enough salmon, the orcas don’t have enough food to eat.

Last year, the Orca Task Force recommended shifting beyond current “no net loss” regulations to a “net ecological gain” policy to reverse the trend of habitat degradation. And now we have a chance to turn that Orca Task Force recommendation into real action. Representative Lekanoff has proposed the Healthy Habitats, Healthy Orcas bill (HB 2550), which would require that any new developments must not only make up for damages they cause to the environment but also increase the amount of habitat restored.

Let’s return here to our dock scenario. Under this new policy, you—as the developer—would not only have to restore the 100 square feet of kelp lost, but go one step further and ensure that you create more benefit to the habitat than you took away. In essence, you’d have to leave the environment a little better than you found it. HB 2550 would establish “net ecological gain” as a state policy direction and ask experts in state agencies to start conversations about how to make it happen. The Environmental Priorities Coalition will continue to work with state and local government partners on how to implement this effectively.

Communities across Washington rely on salmon and a healthy Puget Sound for their livelihoods. We all need clean water and a healthy place to live, and we know our orcas can’t wait any longer. Under the status quo, current and future developments will continue the downward trend in habitat degradation. In order to restore these two iconic species—salmon and orcas—and protect the waters we all share, we must restore habitats by leaving the environment better than we found it for future generations of animals and humans.


Email your legislator or call the toll-free legislative hotline at 1-800-562-6000. Ask your representatives to support HB 2550 to help recover endangered salmon and orcas!

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