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$1.1 billion for orca recovery efforts part of Inslee's budget pitch

Governor Jay Inslee’s plan for orca recovery includes studying breaching dams on the lower Snake River, improving salmon habitat, and a temporary moratorium on commercial whale watching.

Governor Jay Inslee pitched a $1.1 billion investment in orca recovery efforts as part of his 2019-2021 budget proposal, which he unveiled Thursday in Olympia.

Inslee said Washington’s dwindling orca population, which dropped to 74 Southern Residents earlier this year, “demands an immediate response.”

RELATED: Southern Resident orca population hits 30-year low

“Our Washington state orcas are being pushed to an eternal silence,” Inslee said.

Inslee’s orca recovery plan largely includes measures aimed at increasing population and survival rates of salmon, which are a critical food source for orcas. Efforts would protect and restore salmon habitat, provide additional spill down the Columbia and Snake Rivers, boost salmon hatchery production, and expand stormwater cleanup efforts.

The governor also wants to look at one of the more drastic moves that orca advocates have pushed for: breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River to aid migrating salmon. The budget allocates $750,000 for the study.

It’s a contentious issue, because critics have argued tearing down the dams would remove benefits to the region.

However, Inslee cautioned that any study of dam removal would include looking at alternatives to hydroelectric production and transportation services and the impact dam removal would have on the surrounding communities.

“There’s a lot of consensus to be built,” Inslee said. “Whatever we do on the Columbia and Snake requires some degree of consensus.”

RELATED: New effort will analyze genes of endangered Northwest orcas

Inslee’s plan also targets noise disturbance from boat traffic, which prevents orcas from hunting. Inslee pitched a temporary ban on commercial whale watching tours of orcas, which sparked controversy when his orca task force issued the recommendation earlier this fall.

Advocates said a whale watching ban was critical to help orcas find food. But critics argue the move would miss the point and doesn’t address the larger issue of a shrinking salmon supply.

“It’s the right thing to do I believe,” Inslee said.

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