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Will we now commit to saving the Northwest’s orcas? A task force meets Tuesday

Orca J35, also known as Tahlequah, exhales as she continues to carry her dead calf — a week after giving birth — while she swims in Swanson’s Channel, B.C., last week. (Steve Ringman / Seattle Times)
Orca J35, also known as Tahlequah, exhales as she continues to carry her dead calf — a week after giving birth — while she swims in Swanson’s Channel, B.C., last week. (Steve Ringman / Seattle Times)

Will the sad spectacle of a mother orca clinging to her dead calf day after day and the urgent decline of a dying 4-year-old in her same family spark real action to save a species from extinction, or will it just be more business as usual?

A task force on orca recovery, convened by Gov. Jay Inslee, will meet Tuesday in Wenatchee for the first time since the whales riveted the world’s attention, adding poignant urgency to the panel’s deliberations. It is charged with examining the threats and conditions that have depleted the southern-resident killer whales, and recommending a recovery program.

Stephanie Solien, co-chair of the task force, and vice chair of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council, is convinced the orca mother is making a statement intended to get results.

“It is such a tragic and heartbreaking situation, I honestly believe that Tahlequah is on a mission,” Solien said of J35, the mother orca whale who as of Thursday had carried her dead calf for 10 days and more than 250 miles, refusing to let it go.

The southern-resident killer whales have declined to 75 animals. They rely primarily on chinook salmon for their food — a fish that decision-makers must take big steps to restore if the whales are to survive.

 (Seattle Times)
(Seattle Times)

One reason the sight of the mother and her baby — and the dying 4-year-old — have been so hard to watch is because of people’s own knowledge, deep down, that we are connected to their plight, said Jason M. Colby, history professor at the University of Victoria, and author of the book “Orca: How we Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator” (Oxford, 2018).

“She has made the most powerful and eloquent statement of any of us by far,” Colby said. “We know on a fundamental level, or we should know, that this is caused by us, that the pain she is experiencing and showing and the hunger they are experiencing is the result of hard decisions we haven’t made. We did this.”

Food is the priority

Solutions include quieting vessel noise, fishing cutbacks, restraint on development in what habitat remains for salmon, and more money to fix what is destroyed. Even breaching the lower Snake River dams to open up passage to some of the last best habitat in the region — that’s all got to be on the table if the whales are to survive, scientists say. The most urgent need, they agree, is food.

“There is no question the whales are starving,” said Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. His research has linked miscarriages in the whales to lack of food, especially chinook.

Scientists know from analysis of the whales’ scat that they target chinook salmon returning to the Columbia and Snake system in the early spring to sustain themselves until the Fraser River runs start later in the year.

“These are the fatty chinook these whales are incredibly dependent on,” Wasser said. “These dams are impacting them at a critical place and time before they even hit Haro Strait, where we are also seeing big declines of chinook in the Fraser River.

“The bottom line is, it all comes down to salmon.”

Some scientists are dismayed that a few of the early solutions being discussed — from shooting sea lions to producing more hatchery fish — won’t help and could even make the situation worse.

“Shooting sea lions is a knee-jerk response,” said Ken Balcomb, a member of the task force and founding director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. “A natural ecosystem that functions is what we need.”

According to the Center for Whale Research, an 8,000-pound pregnant orca must eat about 4 to 5 percent of her body weight every day — 320 to 420 pounds of suitable prey. Mostly that’s chinook.

If the southern residents don’t get food fast, they will keep losing mothers and their babies, Balcomb said.

“Then it’s over. You will still have whales going around, but it will just be a few grandmothers and old guys.” The population will be functionally extinct, he said.

 (Seattle Times)
(Seattle Times)

Debate over dams

Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for the governor, said all options are open for consideration as the task force deliberates.

The 45-member panel, plus two co-chairs, is composed of state, local and tribal government officials as well as representatives from nonprofits and industry trade associations. The panel is charged with delivering draft recommendations to the governor by Oct. 1, and a final report by Nov. 1. This is to provide time to mount a recovery program based on those recommendations to take to the state Legislature, Smith said.

Recommendations are required to identify and address all of the major threats to southern residents, including prey availability, toxic contaminants and disturbance from noise and vessel traffic.

But the very size of the panel can be a curse, said Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the nonprofit Save Our Wild Salmon. “Its strength is also its weakness,” he said of the task force. “It is very hard to get decisions out of such a big group.”

The sheer number of problems — and necessary solutions — and controversy they are sure to engender is daunting. The whales feed on chinook from a broad geography, from rivers in Puget Sound to the trans-boundary waters of the Salish Sea and Columbia and Snake rivers.

The debate over taking down the lower Snake River dams has festered for more than 20 years, amid opposition from irrigators, dryland wheat farmers, shippers and utilities wedded to the status quo. Federal judge Malcolm Marsh in 1993 rejected the feds’ claim that the dams pose no jeopardy to salmon.

“The process is seriously, significantly flawed because it is too heavily geared towards a status quo that has allowed all forms of river activity to proceed in a deficit situation — that is, relatively small steps, minor improvements and adjustments — when the situation literally cries out for a major overhaul.”

Marsh wrote that 25 years ago — before Tahlequah, now 20, was even born.

The litigation continues, with the fifth, most-recent federal decision on the matter in 2016 calling for a redo of the science and plan for river operations that looks at all alternatives to protect salmon, including Snake River dam removal — a process that won’t conclude for years.

“I guess I am just wondering if we have the courage to act rather than just talk,” said Rick Williams, a fisheries ecologist at The College of Idaho who with other scientists published a recent report on the need for wild salmon and protected habitat to support them. “The reality is that falls into the social and political and economic landscape, more than the biologic. The debate focuses on uncertainty to stall action, but we really have enough science.”

To some, the problem facing the orcas is no different from that confronting an unhealthy person. Quick fixes are only that; treating symptoms without addressing the underlying causes won’t be enough.

“I liken it to a patient in a hospital,” said Joe Gaydos, a member of the task force, veterinarian and director of the SeaDoc Society, a nonprofit conservation group. “You’ve had a heart attack. You have to triage the situation, but you also have to talk about lifestyle changes, like changing your diet and quitting smoking and exercise.”

To him, shooting sea lions or producing more hatchery fish isn’t the answer.

Even beyond the animal-welfare issue, killing sea lions could have unintended consequences in a complicated, interconnected food web, Gaydos said. Scientists have long documented that hatchery fish compete for space and food with wild salmon and can interbreed with them, weakening their genetics. They also can be vectors of disease.

Today’s threats

While hatchery fish may have a role in providing food for the short term, just pushing out more and more of the fish ignores history: The region has been flooding its waterways with hatchery fish for decades, and still the orcas decline.

“From my point of view, it’s exactly the wrong thing to do, pump out more hatchery fish,” said Jack Stanford, professor emeritus at the Flathead Lake Biological Station at the University of Montana.

“The sea lions are there because we are giving them this huge subsidy of hatchery fish. And the return on investment just is not there,” Stanford said. “These fish are so maladapted, who knows what happens to them, but they go into a black hole.”

Wild fish and the habitat to sustain them are what’s needed, Stanford said — something scientists have been saying for a long time. “But the orcas might be like some of us scientists, we just are not listened to.”

Former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro, when he was an aide to then-Gov. Dan Evans, worked in 1976 to stop what he helped make sure was the last capture of killer whales for aquariums ever in Washington waters.

He said the whales that he and others fought to save now face a mortal struggle from threats less obvious than the nets and captors who once pursued them. Now, it’s the day-to-day activities and ordinary desires of millions of people that have put the southern residents on the brink of extinction.

“I hope that mother’s attachment to her baby has woken people up, and that people realize the lives of these animals are about over,” Munro said.

“We have to fix every single culvert that blocks salmon runs, we have to stop chinook fishing, people have to step back,” he said. “Or we are going to lose one of the greatest gifts God ever gave us.”


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