By Kimberly Cauvel / Skagit Valley Herald
As the number of endangered southern resident orca whales continues to decline and threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon remain imperiled, officials say the need to save the two species is becoming more dire.
The leadership council for the state’s Puget Sound Partnership passed a resolution last week recognizing the connection between the fish and whales, and committed to accelerating the recovery of both iconic species.
The seven-member council includes representatives from throughout the Puget Sound region and is the governing body of the state agency.
“If we lose southern resident orcas, we will have failed in our job,” the partnership’s Todd Hass said before the council voted to pass the resolution. “We need to bring the orcas back to stable numbers and to do that we need to bring chinook salmon back to stable numbers.”
The Puget Sound Partnership also released last week a 2017 State of the Sound report that for the first time acknowledges that the goals the state Legislature laid out when it formed the partnership 10 years ago will not be met by the target of 2020.
“Despite the efforts of so many, it is time to admit that we will not recover Puget Sound to good health by 2020,” the report states.
It calls for expedited action to continue working toward a healthy Puget Sound beyond 2020.
“As a national and tribal treasure, Puget Sound is worthy of our every effort for protection,” the report states.
The report highlights the peril of the region’s salmon and orcas as a key indicator that Puget Sound remains unhealthy.
The southern resident orcas travel in three pods, or family groups, called J, K and L, and frequent the Salish Sea including areas around Anacortes and the islands in west Skagit County.
Puget Sound chinook salmon use habitat in several area rivers — including the Skagit — and in tributary streams and estuaries throughout the Skagit River delta.
The salmon make up about 80 percent of the whales’ diet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
While Skagit River chinook populations appear to be increasing or at least holding steady, the overall salmon population throughout Puget Sound is about one-third what it was 100 years ago, according to the Puget Sound Partnership.
Both the salmon and the whales that depend on them are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
In 2005, the orcas were listed as endangered — meaning at risk of going extinct. That same year, chinook salmon were listed as threatened — meaning at risk of becoming endangered.
The orcas and chinook are two of 20 indicators, or vital signs, the Puget Sound Partnership monitors to gauge the health of Puget Sound.
According to the recent State of the Sound report, the orca population has continued to get worse since the last report and the chinook population has not improved.
The southern resident orca population has declined from 88 whales in 2005 to 76 whales as of September, according to the new report.
Puget Sound chinook populations are “dangerously below federal recovery goals and are not improving.”
During the partnership’s leadership council meeting Nov. 1, several speakers said taking down dams on the Snake River in southeast Washington would be the fastest way to increase the number of salmon reaching Puget Sound for orcas to eat.
“Breaching the four Snake River dams is the only thing the state can do with virtually no cost to the state and that has an immediate impact in that you would increase the number of (young chinook salmon) going downstream … increasing the amount of fish in the ocean in just a few years,” said Jim Waddell, who retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and for several years has been an advocate for removing the dams.
Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council Chair Jay Manning told the Skagit Valley Herald he believes the expertise of local organizations, including the Skagit Watershed Council, will be key in moving salmon and orca recovery forward.
“I think that question is going to be asked: ‘What can and should be done locally?’” Manning said. “I’m very eager to have that conversation with the local folks. They know the watershed best, and I know they care about chinook and orca recovery.”
Skagit Watershed Council Executive Director Richard Brocksmith said several habitat restoration projects benefiting chinook salmon have been done in the Skagit River estuaries, floodplains and stream-side forests.
By some estimates, the work has achieved 25 percent of the goal set in the Skagit Chinook Recovery Plan, which is to restore enough habitat to support 1.35 million more young chinook salmon throughout the watershed.
“We continue to make slow and steady progress. The challenge is funding, and we’re still waiting on the (state’s) capital budget,” Brocksmith said. “We continue to have projects teed up that will make a difference.”
Major projects completed toward the recovery plan include Fisher Slough and the more recent Fir Island Farm projects, which set back dikes to open up more habitat where young fish can hide while they grow before swimming out to the ocean for their adult lives.
Not having enough of that habitat, called rearing habitat, is a main problem for chinook in the Skagit River.
“There’s not enough room for them to hide and get out of the flows and not get washed into the bay … That’s what’s controlling the population so much,” Brocksmith said.
If the young fish are forced into the ocean too soon, their chance of survival decreases.