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NW Fishletter #391, March 4, 2019
 Orca Bills Aim To Help Whales With Prey, Noise And Pollution
Nine bills aimed at carrying out recommendations of the Southern Resident Orca Task Force are working their way through the Washington Legislature.
The legislation addresses some of the main problems confronting the whales--lack of food, noise and disruptions from vessel traffic, and toxic chemicals and pollution in Puget Sound.
House Bill 1579 and Senate Bill 5580 seek to provide more prey, especially Chinook salmon, by improving habitat and reducing predation risks to salmon smolts. They would strengthen the state's hydraulic codes and encourage more fishing of non-native fish that prey on young salmon, such as bass, walleye and channel catfish. The Senate bill has not advanced from committee, but the House bill was modified and referred to the Rules Committee.
HB 1580 and SB 5577, in fiscal committees, would bar vessels within 300 yards of the whales, an increase of 100 yards from the current distance; slow boat traffic within 1,300 yards of an orca; and add restrictions to commercial whale watching operators, rather than the original language calling for a temporary ban on whale watching.
HB 1194 and SB 5135 would address pollution and toxic chemicals, directing the state Department of Ecology to identify priority chemicals, and authorize the agency to take regulatory actions with regard to those chemicals, including restricting or prohibiting the manufacture, sale or use of them. SB 5135 advanced out of the Ways and Means Committee, while its companion has been idling in the Appropriations Committee since Feb. 15.
HB 1578 and SB 5578 would reduce the risks of an oil spill in areas frequented by the southern resident orcas. The bills would "spur international discussions among federal, state, provincial, and industry leaders in the United States and Canada to develop an agreement for the shared funding of an emergency rescue tug available to vessels in distress in the narrow Straits of the San Juan Islands and other boundary waters," the bill digests say. The House bill cleared the Appropriations Committee Feb. 28, while the Senate bill has been stalled since Feb. 8 in the Ways and Means Committee.
SB 5617, which would ban non-tribal gillnets in the Columbia River, was referred to Ways and Means Feb. 23, where it awaits a hearing. The bill directs the Fish and Wildlife Department to set up a program to purchase salmon gill-net fishing licenses from salmon fishermen in the Columbia River, and would prohibit gill-net fishing beginning in 2023. -K.C. Mehaffey
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