Despite research, regulations and rallies calling for the protection and recovery of endangered Southern Resident orcas, the whale population that frequents the Salish Sea is at its lowest number since 1984.
Thirty-four years ago, after the capture in the 1970s of dozens of the whales to be used for entertainment purposes, 74 Southern Resident orcas remained in the wild.
Now, following the death of a calf in August and the suspected death this month of another orca, the population has again fallen to 74.
Reaching that low comes 13 years after the whales received Endangered Species Act protection, seven years after rules limited how close boats can get, and three years after what was described as a “baby boom” among the iconic black and white mammals that are also known as killer whales or blackfish.
The Southern Resident orca population is made up of three family groups, referred to as the J, K and L pods, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries division. The whale that died recently and the one presumed dead were from J pod.
The nonprofit Center for Whale Research concluded Sept. 13 when it announced the presumed death of the missing 3-year-old female orca known as J50: “This is what extinction looks like.”
The main problem for the whales remains a shortage of food. They rely heavily on the region’s chinook salmon, which are also declining in number.
A state orca recovery task force organized earlier this year at the request of Gov. Jay Inslee is working to determine the best ways to save the remaining whales.
A draft report released Monday by working groups involved with the task force sets the goal of increasing the Southern Resident orca population by 10 whales in the next 10 years.
To get there, the document proposes a variety of short- and long-term steps to increase the number of salmon available to the orcas, improve the region’s water quality and better manage boat traffic near the whales.
A salmon problem
Chinook salmon from Puget Sound, the state’s coast and British Columbia’s Fraser River is the primary food source for the Southern Resident orcas.
The remaining orca population should consume about 500,000 of the fish per year, according to the Center for Whale Research. But with threatened Puget Sound and Columbia River chinook populations being a fraction of what they once were, there simply are not enough fish to go around.
Further complicating matters is that noise from boat traffic is believed to interfere with the whales’ ability to communicate with each other and to locate fish they’re trying to eat.
Studies suggest that when the whales do not get enough food their bodies break down and expose them to pollutants hidden away in their blubber when they are at healthy weights — a process that poisons them.
The orca J50 disappeared in early September after an emergency effort was made to feed and medicate her in the wild. The whale had been showing signs of illness for several weeks.
“We are devastated by the loss of J50,” Robb Krehbiel, Northwest representative for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife and a member of the state’s orca recovery task force, said in a news release. “If we are unable to restore the salmon that these orcas need, more whales will starve to death.”
A recent NOAA Fisheries report analyzing which salmon populations are most important to the Southern Resident orcas concluded Puget Sound chinook that return each fall to rivers that include the Skagit and Samish are the most significant for the whales.
It’s here in the Puget Sound and the greater Salish Sea — from the waters between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia to those around the San Juan Islands and out the Strait of Juan de Fuca — that the whales spend nearly half the year, April to October, feeding on salmon, according to a NOAA Fisheries report from 2017.
Some have told the state task force they believe the orcas’ situation should play a role in fisheries negotiations.
Deborah Giles, a longtime researcher and current science adviser for the Orca Salmon Alliance, said at an August task force meeting in Anacortes that orcas should be considered in the same way that commercial, tribal and sport fishermen are when when West Coast chinook salmon are divided up among the groups.
Port of Friday Harbor Commissioner Greg Hertel submitted a letter from the port requesting the state do just that.
Samish Indian Nation Cultural Outreach Manager Rosie Cayou James told the Skagit Valley Herald she thinks a more drastic approach is needed.
“We need to shut down the chinook fishery. That’s all there is to it and I’m not even afraid to say that,” Cayou James said. “We need to shut down the whole chinook industry for at least four years.”
Meanwhile, fisheries managers are focusing on other species that compete with the orcas for the salmon: harbor seals and birds such as cormorants.
Before reaching the same waters as the orcas, salmon are often eaten by seals and birds that congregate near dams the fish pass through and at the mouths of the rivers they come from, according to task force documents.
Addressing those animals is complicated by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which provide protections to those species.
The state Department of Fish & Wildlife is studying where in the state seals are eating the most salmon and expects to release its findings this winter, according to the task force.
On another front, several groups are petitioning for the removal of four dams on the lower Snake River, which is a major tributary to the Columbia River and home to threatened chinook populations. Removing the dams would improve fish passage and survival rates, thereby increasing the number of salmon potentially available to the orcas.
Yet, according to a 2016 fact sheet from NOAA Fisheries, the increase in the number of fish would only marginally help the whales.
Still, the potential of breaching the dams and the impact it could have is being considered by the task force, as well as through an environmental review underway to evaluate how those and 10 other dams in the Columbia and Snake river watersheds should continue to be managed.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration are working together on the environmental review and a draft is expected to be released in March 2020, according to the project website.
“At this point a petition (to remove the dams) would really have no standing, but the feedback we’re getting from the public suggests that there is interest in this topic, and it is a topic that is part of the review process that is currently underway,” Corps spokesman Matt Rabe said.
As options to help the orcas are considered, each loss of another whale is felt among those in the region.
The Samish tribe held a vigil Sept. 16 at Rosario Beach for J50, also known as Scarlet, and the calf, which at the tribe’s request was given the name of Titahlequah.
Cayou James said the calf was named after its mother J35, or Tahlequah. The calf’s name means little Tahlequah, or little truth.
A group at the vigil sent a plate of salmon into the water in honor of the calf, Cayou James said.
“I believe that the whale spirits got a message from land that they are not alone, that we share their grief,” she said.
This is not the first time Samish tribal members have shared grief with the Southern Resident orcas, which some tribal members consider family.
“Back in the early 1970s my dad sat on the beach and watched his family being captured and I will never forget the tears that he had,” Cayou James said.
Orca recovery task force co-chairs Les Purce and Stephanie Solien said in a prepared statement that the compassion for the whales is clear.
“If compassion were fish, the orcas would not be starving. If compassion were clean water, our orcas would not be suffering the effects of toxic contamination. If compassion were quiet waters, our orcas would once again be able to find their prey and communicate with each other,” Purce and Solien said.
The state’s Puget Sound Partnership, which overseed the task force, is of the opinion that the situation is dire.
“We have not yet definitively lost our orcas, but our three resident pods are struggling mightily to survive,” states the Action Agenda released in August by the Puget Sound Partnership. “A population that cannot reproduce is functionally extinct even if the remaining adults survive for another forty years — They are ghosts in the water.”
The task force is made up of a broad coalition of about 40 members, including Samish Indian Nation Chairman Tom Wooten and Port of Anacortes Commissioner Kathy Pittis.
With the recent report of possible actions and the resulting public comments, the task force will write a final report for Inslee by Nov. 16, detailing what the group feels the state should do to save the whales.
The task force will continue its work in 2019, producing another report by the end of that year.
Work in progress
When Inslee created the task force, he also directed several state agencies to take immediate actions to help the whales.
In response, the state Department of Fish & Wildlife increased its marine enforcement presence and began planning to raise more chinook at state hatcheries.
For Fish & Wildlife officers Ralph Downes and Taylor Kimball, who often start their days in Anacortes, that has meant most of their time on the water this year has been geared toward protecting the Southern Resident orcas.
“I’m kind of the ambassador of the whale right now,” Downes said.
Officers from other areas of the state have been helping, too, such as Clint Lucci and Brandon Chamberlin who doubled up enforcement around the San Juan Islands the last week of August.
Downes, who has been with Fish & Wildlife’s marine enforcement unit for 28 years, said just having law enforcement on the water encourages boaters to follow the rules, similar to how a state trooper on a freeway encourages drivers not to speed.
State law requires boaters stay 200 yards from the orcas, to avoid getting in their path and to put their engines in neutral if a whale unexpectedly surfaces within 200 yards.
When it comes to increasing the number of chinook salmon from the state’s hatcheries, Fish & Wildlife spokeswoman Michelle Dunlop said the state raises and releases an average of 100 million chinook each year.
The state agency plans to increase that by 8.7 million chinook in 2019 — 1.4 million of which would be raised at hatcheries in Skagit County — if the Legislature provides funding in the next budget cycle, Dunlop said.
Additional increases could be made if requested by the task force and in Inslee’s next budget, but those increases would be costly.
Fish & Wildlife recently drew up cost estimates for increasing the number of hatchery chinook and coho for the sake of the whales.
To produce another 50 million chinook would cost an estimated $121.4 million in infrastructure and $9.6 million per year to raise the fish, according to documents provided to the Fish & Wildlife Commission for its Sept. 5 meeting.
Producing another 5.5 million coho would cost about $38.9 million for infrastructure and $1.9 million per year for the fish.