How to Save the Orcas
By Jean Godden
Our resident orcas are threatened and, without our help, they likely will go extinct. The whales' sad plight became abundantly clear recently when we read news reports and watched TV footage about J35, the orca who drew world-wide attention when she carried her dead calf for !7 days.
There's much to learn about the condition of our endangered killer whales. And I began hearing more during a radio interview (carried on 101.1 FM) that I had with Donna Sandstrom. She's the executive director of The Whale Trail, an organization dedicated to orca stewardship. Her nonprofit is headquartered in West Seattle.
Sandstrom had much to say about what has brought J, K and L pods, our Southern resident orcas, to the edge of extinction.
First and foremost, it isn't the lack of salmon alone that has critically impacted the whales. That, of course, is a large factor. But there are two other contributing causes: toxin accumulation and vessel noise and disturbance. Sandstrom says these conditions work together like "a three-legged stool."
She reports that toxins such as PCBs are stored in the orcas' blubber and mother's milk. When whales are stressed, the toxins are released into their bloodstream making them more susceptible to disease. Boat noise makes it harder for the orcas to hunt. That makes them stressed and hungry and then a target for disease.
Orcas rely on sound to hunt their prey, just as they use acoustics to communicate with each other and to navigate. Distractions and noise from commercial vessels, private craft and whale-watching boats are causing the orcas to lose an estimated five hours of foraging time each day. If they are unable to hunt, they will not survive.
While the number of resident killer whales are dwindling with perhaps only a third of their historic population remaining, the number of distractions are growing. Dozens of whale-watching boats pursue them during the peak summer and fall season, causing noise and even forming floating corrals from which the whales cannot escape.
The whale-watching industry is largely unregulated. There are distance guidelines (boats must stay 200 yards away), but there are no restrictions on the numbers of boats, the number of trips they can make per day, nor the areas in which they can operate. This is true on both sides of the border.
Those who have been studying the orcas say that for recovery of the species, we must increase the amount of salmon and decrease the amount of noise. Lowering sound volumes in the Salish Sea is the most effective thing we can do in the short term.
Strategies for how to accomplish those goals are the focus for Gov. Jay Inslee's Southern Resident Whale Recovery Task Force. That task force is studying how to best proceed. There have been many suggestions, some mild, some more far-reaching. Among them are fishing restrictions and licensing requirements for whale-watching vessels.
Whether stringent measures are enacted will depend on recommendations from the task force and willingness of the Legislature to enact tougher regulation.
There have been some volunteer efforts to help the orcas. Chef/owner Renee Erickson of the Whale Wins and other Seattle restaurants has removed Chinook salmon from her menus, wishing to reserve fish for the orcas. Other chefs have followed her lead. Giving up Chinook may be mainly symbolic, but the effort can serve to focus interest in saving the whales.
There also is a revival in interest in removing the Snake River dams that interfere with salmon spawning and have reduced fish runs. To be effective, however, dam removal would require years and would not help with immediate problems.
Meanwhile, Sandstrom and her team have established The Whale Trail to encourage shore-
based whale watching at 50 sites located on city, county and state parklands, as well as tribal
lands. The trail stretches from British Columbia to San Diego, California, and includes choice viewing spots along the Salish Sea.
Assisting are half a dozen partners including NOAA Fisheries, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Seattle Aquarium, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and the Whale Museum. Members of the team first came together when they worked to successfully to return Springer, an orphaned orca, to her native waters near the north end of Vancouver Island.
The Whale Trail is working to make the critical connection between stewardship and orca recovery. According to Sandstrom, the grass-roots organization focuses on what each of us can do to help.
" To be effective, however, dam removal would require years and would not help with immediate problems"
Your comment on the Snake River dams should be corrected to read something like this:
'To be effective in producing 600,000 to 1,000,000 Chinook in a year an a half, both Lower Granite and Little Goose dam should be breached starting in 2018. It has been 16 years since the US Corps of Engineer's 2002 EIS documented the tremendous benefits to salmon via dam breaching in Alternative 4. This would help the Orca's immediate problems and longterm health seeing as they are starving. Noise reduction will never be fully dissipated. The orca don't eat noise, they eat chinook, and their adaptability and creative nature can find ways to hunt around water noise.'