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Capitol Dispatch

Editor’s note: Capitol Dispatch appears every Sunday during the legislative session.

Six of state Rep. Brian Blake’s bills have made it through the House and are now in the Senate, including three that would increase protection of southern resident orca whales, honor the Pacific razor clam and expand access to commercial fishing.

Blake, an Aberdeen Democrat whose district includes Pacific, Wahkiakum and part of Cowlitz Counties, said Thursday the struggling southern resident orca population needs greater protection to avoid extinction. He is the chief sponsor of House Bill 1580.

The southern resident orcas were an endangered species in 2005. They inhabit the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound, according to the Center for Whale Research. As of January, only 75 survived.

Blake’s legislation would increase expand the mandatory buffer between whales and ships by 50 percent, to 300 yards. In addition, vessels would not be allowed within 400 yards behind any southern resident orca. And any vessel within a half nautical mile of a southern resident orca would not be allowed to exceed a speed of seven knots.

Blake said these measures would decrease noise, which in turn would reduce interference with orcas’ ability to find food through sound.

“The science is pointing to underwater noise as being a problem for their feeding success,” Blake said. “(This bill) should reduce underwater noise greatly.”

The legislation would establish a commercial whale watching license, which includes an annual fee of $200 and additional fees depending on the size of the vessel.

It also requires limitations on the number of commercial whale watching operators, the number of days and hours that they can operate, the areas where they can operate and the duration of time in the vicinity of southern resident orca.

The legislation passed out of the House 78 to 20. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks on March 9.

In addition to the legislation, Blake said he wants to increase salmon hatchery production to create food for the orcas.

“My greatest concern is these whales are starving, and that’s why calf recruitment is poor,” he said. “In addition to this bill, the most important thing we can do is increase hatchery production in the short term.”

Commercial fishing licenses

Aberdeen Republican Rep. Jim Walsh has co-sponsored Blake’s two other bills, both of which passed unanimously out of the House, that expand access for commercial fishing and designate the Pacific razor clam as the state clam.

Blake told The Daily News Thursday that his legislation would make it easier for young fishing families to break into the commercial fishing business by reducing the amount of capital they need to get started.

Under current law, banks can only lend against physical assets such as boats and gear, not a fishing license, even though the license may be valuable due to the limited number available, Blake said.

“It’s a barrier to new folks and families getting into the business,” Blake said. “They would have to come up with a lot more personal capital to buy into these businesses, and this (legislation) would just allow them to borrow the money necessary to actually start a business.”

House Bill 1062 removes a line prohibiting the creation of a lien in a commercial fishing license. It passed unanimously out of the House on March 7 and was referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and parks. It is scheduled for a public hearing on March 21.

Pacific razor clam

Blake and Walsh also successfully passed out of the House legislation that would designate the Pacific razor clam as the state’s clam.

Washingtonians harvest as many as 3 million razor clams annually, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. They can grow up to 6 inches long and can be found on the coasts of California all the way to Alaska.

“(The Pacific razor clam) is an important part of the economy for the coast of Washington,” Blake said. “It’s an important tourist attraction and family experience to come out to the beaches and dig for clams and experience that coastal lifestyle. I think the bill will allow us to highlight that importance and the need for strong populations of razor clams.”

Blake’s three other bills that passed out of the House would make it easier to reauthorize medical marijuana cards for children who have difficulty traveling, allow parents to bring medical marijuana to qualifying students during the school days for their second dose and help plan for drought year-round.

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