Friday, March 16, 2018

Can the Endangered Orca Whale Save the Sound?

Southern Resident killer whales [Molly Fearnbach/NOAA]
Washington governor Jay Inslee this week directed state agencies to get serious about orca whale recovery and declared that, “The destiny of salmon and orca and we humans are intertwined... As the orca go, so go we." ["New Washington directive aims to help endangered orcas"] 

The problem-- as we’ve known for years-- is the precipitous decline of the Southern Resident killer whale population now at 76 whales and the equally precipitous decline of Chinook salmon, the primary prey of these whales.

The “we,” of course, are us humans who have in large part brought these two iconic species to the brink of extinction with our human activities over the last hundred years. What do “we” have to do— if we choose to bring the killer whale and Chinook salmon populations back to health?

There’s been lots of talk and various actions taken since then-governor Gary Locke in 2000 declared that “extinction was not an option” for Chinook salmon. The results, however, over the years have been less than stellar. On Monday I’m sure there will be a full venting of the plight of the salmon at the First Annual Billy Frank Jr. Pacific Salmon Summit.

For the new focus on orca recovery, the governor is forming a task force and has given short deadlines for agencies to report on what is being done and what more can be done to increase the availability of Chinook salmon for whales, to reduce vessel traffic noise and to reduce toxic chemical uptake by Chinook and by the whales. [the list of specific directives is found below]

The priorities of more prey, quieter waters (to allow better echolocation of prey by the whales) and less toxins comes from research over the years, the most recent being the October 2017 study, “Evaluating anthropogenic threats to endangered killer whales to inform effective recovery plans” by Robert C. Lacy et al.

Reporter Lynda Mapes in a Seattle Times article on the study wrote: “A clear finding emerged: lack of food, specifically chinook salmon, was the orcas’ biggest threat to long-term survival, so much so that a 30 percent increase in chinook above average levels is needed to recover the orca population. That increase could be cut to 15 percent if vessel noise also is reduced by half. Otherwise, the populations will continue to decline and there is a 25 percent chance the whales will be lost within 100 years, the scientists found.” [" Orcas headed to extinction unless we get them more chinook and quieter waters, report says"]

I don’t know how much vessel noise currently exists in the habitat of the killer whales but I know that more petroleum-carrying large vessels are proposed to ply their waters in the years to come.

I also don’t know what the current population of Chinook salmon is but a 30 percent increase above average levels certainly seems like a big challenge. The study itself puts it another way: "Chinook abundance would have to be sustained near the highest level since the 1970s." Wow!

Increased numbers of Chinook and reduced vessel noise provide benchmarks to measure our progress. The state of late hasn’t made much progress in meeting its Puget Sound recovery goals but here’s another chance— with a renewed sense of urgency-- to get it right. Of course, the most meaningful result would be more whales born and flourishing. But, in any case, more Chinook salmon wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

--Mike Sato

In his executive order, Governor Inslee’s states:

  •    Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) with review from the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office (GSRO) and the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) —By July 31, 2018, identify the highest priority areas and watersheds for Southern Resident prey in order to focus or adjust, as needed, restoration, protection, incentives, hatcheries, harvest levels, and passage policies and programs.
  •    WDFW and Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission (WSPRC) —By April 30, 2018, develop implementation plans for increased enforcement, outreach and education of vessel regulations as well as enforcement of Chinook fisheries regulations in areas frequented by orcas.
  •    Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology)—By April 30, 2018, create a curriculum to improve and increase the number of trainings for vessels in the whale watching industry to become “vessels of opportunity” to assist in the event of an oil spill.
  •    Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) —By May 31, 2018, develop strategies for quieting state ferries in areas most important to Southern Residents.
  •    WDFW —By April 30, 2018, review and amend, as needed, 2018 recreational and commercial fishing regulations prioritizing protection of key areas and fish runs for Southern Resident recovery. I will also ask our tribal co-managers, and international and federal fisheries managers to work directly with WDFW and its Commission in developing recommendations for implementing this action.
  •    WDFW—By April 30, 2018, explore options and develop a proposal to alter fish food used in state hatcheries to limit the amount of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in Southern Resident prey.
  •    PSP, WDFW, GSRO —By December 15, 2018, demonstrate how Chinook recovery projects benefit Southern Resident recovery, beginning in the 2018 grant round, for the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund, the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Program, the Estuary and Salmon Restoration program and the Washington Coastal Restoration Initiative.
  •    PSP, WDFW, GSRO, WSPRC, Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) — By July 1, 2018, prioritize existing outreach resources to support Southern Resident recovery. Collaborate with the Governor’s Office to develop a public education program and identify needed resources.
  •    Ecology — By July 31, 2018, develop criteria to prioritize financial assistance beginning in the 2019-21 biennium for storm water projects that benefit Southern Resident recovery.

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