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Monday, June 3, 2019

Year 2 of Orca Task Force: June 3 Meeting

Today I attended the second meeting of year two for Governor Inslee's Orca Task Force. The first meeting of 2019, which occurred in March and which I was unable to attend, happened when most of the Year 1 recommendations were still in limbo during the legislative process. The topic of that meeting was primarily climate change and how it impacts regional orca and salmon recovery. Specifically, for each of the working groups:
Prey - Impacts of climate change will determine which habitats are most effective to restore
Vessels - Emissions, and carbon neutrality issues
Toxins - Which impacts will be amplified, such as new toxin sources being submerged
There will be a report from each of the working groups on these topics at the September meeting.

The meeting started off with a quick recap from a subcommittee considering ways to carry the work of the task force beyond the end of this year. They have several options on the table that the task force will be taking a survey about in the coming months, and which will be discussed in more detail at the next meeting in September.

Next, JT Austin of the governor's office gave a recap of tribal involvement, and defined how true consultation and government to government relations work. With many tribes represented at the table, this seemed like something that definitely should have happened at the beginning of Year 1. The Orca Task Force does not represent official consultation, and the tribes have different rights, authorities, and interests than other groups at the table. I recall many of the tribal representatives abstained from voting on the year one recommendations, deferring to their direct government to government conversations with Inslee and the state. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the rest of the task force process.

GI James of the Lummi tribe spoke next, and set the tone for the whole day - truly, for the whole cause. Here are some excerpts and summaries of what he said: "We are in a crisis....we cannot be planning for 50 years out." He pointed out that legislators need to be clear that the consequences of saying "no" to recovery actions are extinction. This is not a matter of picking and choosing items off a list based on what's politically expedient. "I'm glad this process is happening," he said, "but it needs a much, much greater emphasis on crisis."

He proposed that a crisis management team be formed to propose a measurable, needed, and funded crisis management plan. "It's a tough, hard set of decisions that need to be made....around this table are inherent conflicts of interest that make it tough to make those decisions. We still think we can have it all.....There's a really tough road ahead, and as much as I appreciate the 36 recommendations [from Year One], most of them are not meaningful actions." He got a loud round of applause after his comments.

Next was a recap of the legislative process and where all the 36 recommendations are currently, with a scorecard based on input from the working groups. Green = on track, yellow = in progress/more work needed, red = no action taken. You can read the scorecard from Team BOLD (Whitney Neugebauer of Whale Scout, Cindy Hansen from Orca Network, myself from the Orca Behavior Institute, and Susan Marie Andersson of Salish Sea Ecosystem Advocates) here; needless to say our rankings were a little different from theirs! One difference was they had 5 actions ranked red; we had 9. We gave status updates on our scorecard of where each action stood, but below are a few additional things I learned today:

Less than 10% of identified salmon habitat restoration projects in the state were funded. While it's great some projects are moving forward, there are A LOT of shovel ready projects that are awaiting money. In the presentation given today, they claimed Recommendation 1 as a "green/yellow" score. Jacques White of Long Live the Kings chimed in to say, given the huge shortfall from the goal of "fully funding" salmon habitat restoration projects, "I would say Recommendation 1 is a red."

Recommendation 6, regarding increased hatchery production, needs to have appropriate monitoring in place in 3-5 years to assess the impacts of this increased production. It was emphasized that wild fish are the long term goal, and we don't want to undermine the efforts to restore wild fish by flooding the system with hatchery fish.

There was a brief update on Recommendation 9 regarding the formation of the Lower Snake River dam stakeholder panel. The executive team is having a meeting later this week regarding finding a neutral third party to facilitate this process, and to discuss options of how the process will work. Rather than being an extended series of meetings, one option is for part of the process to have a neutral third party gather the existing information from all stakeholders, and summarize that information. It was made clear that the panel itself is not a study, nor is it a decision making process. It's goal is to discuss what the impacts would be if the current ongoing federal process does recommend dam breaching.

Recommendations 12 and 13, regarding pinniped control in Puget Sound and on the outer coast, did not get funded in the legislative process, which means that some of the ongoing studies in this area have lost funding. Someone pointed out that not having funding doesn't mean this issue goes away, and numerous task force members expressed an interest in continuing to explore the impact of pinnipeds on salmon, pointing out that it didn't necessarily mean the conclusion was going to be culling.

On Recommendation 22, relating to coordinating with Canada and/or coming up with a similar program to the ECHO ship slowdown efforts, there is in fact a meeting scheduled for the fall to come up with a plan for Washington State to do something similar in its waters, slowing down shipping traffic, cruise ships, and/or ferries in certain areas. (We also learned later the Canadian Haro Strait trial slow down area will extend into Boundary Pass this year.) Yay!

Regarding Recommendation 31 related to stormwater prevention and cleanup, a lot of funding was passed for this action, which is great. But it was pointed out this is only half the battle; we can't just throw money at the issue, but it needs to be targeted to hotspots where cleanups will have the biggest impacts. Luckily it sounds like the toxins working group is motivated to engage on this.

In the "fishbowl" discussion that followed, where the task force members could discuss the update on where the year one recommendations stood and identify gaps or make suggestions, Jacques White of Long Live the Kings took the mic first, and made good use of his time. "What is the relationship between the year one action items and killer whale recovery?" he asked. "If all the dots were green, would that get us 100% of the way to recovery?....All the yellow dots indicate we are not responding to a crisis." This is SUCH a key point. All of these actions are getting debated but there has been no attempt to quantify what their impact might be and how that relates to stated recovery goals. 

He continued to point out that we did great on policy issues in the last legislative session, passing perhaps the best suite of environmental laws in the state since the 1970s. But "we have chronically underfunded salmon recovery for ten years", and he feels relying on a biennial budget from the legislature that competes with other societal needs is not going to generate the needed funds. This underscored a common theme that a steady source of dedicated funding for salmon recovery is needed.

A few moments later Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society took the mic, again echoing many of our sentiments: "If we don't put fish into the mouths of these whales, we will not succeed....are these actions enough to bring back enough salmon?" He seconded Jacques' request for some modeling efforts to look at the impact of the ongoing actions because, "I don't want to wait 10 years to realize we've failed."

The meeting was briefly interrupted by three minutes of sirens relating to some drill for the city of Puyallup, but it seemed someone appropriate given all the talk in the morning of "crisis". Before the lunch break, Joe finished his statement with a "mic drop" worthy comment: "A scientist saying we need more science is like a barber saying you need a haircut, but if we don't take a look and analyze this, next time we will hear a lot more than 3 minutes of sirens."

After lunch, the task force co-chairs allowed me (and some friends, pictured above!) to distribute copies of my book, "Endangered Orcas", to every member of the task force, the staff, and some of the guest representatives from other agencies. THANK YOU to the 20 people who donated enough funds to cover the 54 copies we put directly into the hands of people directly involved in orca and salmon recovery. I do feel compelled to say that every person but one graciously accepted the gift with an interest in learning more; the one exception was task force member Donna Sandstrom of The Whale Trail, who declined the book and said she was not interested. As someone who routinely asks people to reconsider their opinions, my interpretation was this was an unwillingness to be open to even considering material that *might* differ from her own.

Three members of Transport Canada and DFO gave a summary of the recently announced action items in Canada. Some of the immediate/temporary measures include area fisheries closures, expanded shipping traffic slowdowns, the production of an extra 1 million smolts at the Chilliwack hatchery for Fraser River fall run Chinook, and a move to keep small vessels 400m from killer whales within Southern Resident critical habitat. You can read more details here. Other longer term action items are expected within the next year. Again, the question of benchmarks was raised, with regards to how you measure success. Their response was it's something still in discussion. "We're addressing the threats; we don't have the resources to measure impact on recovery." Basically, while they may be able to measure things like reduction in noise related to vessel slowdown trials, there is again the gap of not knowing what that impact might actually be on Southern Resident killer whale recovery.

The main topic of discussion for the rest of the afternoon was population growth. It was pointed out that, like climate change, if the impacts of population growth on the region are not addressed, the rest of the work being discussed may all be for naught. There was a series of four short presentations on the topic of population growth in Washington State. A few notes I took on those:
  • We need to look at previous population growth-related targets, how we fared on those, and if we failed, why we failed. For example, a target was set to reduce loss of riparian areas between 2001 and 2011: a target that was not met. If all we do is set a new goal, we may just fail again.
  • We need to consider how and where we grow: are critical areas protected, are our footprints small, are we increasing urban population or converting more rural land into urban areas? 
  • There are currently 4 million people in the Puget Sound region, and this is projected to grow to 5.8 million by 2050. Models show we will add 33-150 square miles of impervious area (eg buildings, roads) to the region by 2055. The direct connection may not be obvious, but more impervious areas -> more runoff -> more toxins in the Salish Sea -> bad for orcas and salmon
  • There are some indicators we are moving in the right direction. One of the fastest growing residential neighborhoods is downtown Seattle, indicating we are growing "up" and not "out". 96% of housing permits are currently going to urban areas - a few decades ago this was more like 70%, with many rural areas being converted into additional housing.
  • Vision 2050 and the Regional Open Space Network are two projects working to guide growth and preserve/restore open space and rural areas.
  • We need to focus on system (aka ecosystem) level management; we can't leave each city, county, state, etc. to fend for itself when those are artificial barriers (Open Space Network a good example of not looking at political boundaries)
The task force then had time to discuss these presentations in another fishbowl conversation. One interesting topic was the idea of "no net loss" which is often stated as a habitat recovery/preservation goal, but this is a constantly shifting baseline unless more clearly defined, because "no net loss relative to what?" Some advocated for drawing a line in the sand, and saying "no net loss from X year", but Mindy from WEC pointed out that we are beyond "no net loss" scenarios, and we need to talk about goals of "net gain" on habitat. This means we would need to restore more habitat than we are destroying, so there's a net gain on serviceable habitat. I wholeheartedly agree this needs to be the target!

The task force will likely move towards making some high level recommendations regarding climate change and population growth. As Will Hall, the mayor of Shoreline, pointed out: the task force would be better served helping to set performance standards, accountability mechanisms, and a funding source, rather than dictating to jurisdictions exactly what they need to do. Not only is this a more attainable goal for the task force, it allows different solutions to be developed in different areas, which makes sense, because not all areas are facing the same problems. It's obviously a huge topic and it sounds like an additional subgroup will be formed to discuss some of these questions further before the September meeting.

Whew! Are you exhausted just reading all that? It was, as all task force meetings are, a long and tiring day, but I do still take heart in the fact that most if not all the people in the room truly want to do right by the whales and the salmon, even if they have other horses in the race as well. If it was easy to save these whales we would have done it by now. While the process and results may not be as fast or as ideal as many of us would hope, having all these people in the room talking about paths forward to real solutions is leaps and bounds ahead of where we were when the Southern Residents were listed as endangered. More has been done on behalf of the Southern Residents in the last year in both the US and Canada than in the preceding 13 years since their endangered listing. If that's not a sign of moving in the right direction, I don't know what is. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and I appreciate each and every one of you for staying engaged in whatever way you can.