Orcas, specifically the Southern Resident killer whales that Washington state residents have claimed as a symbol of their Northwest heritage, have also become a symbol of the impacts that have been allowed to accumulate in the state waters where they live, feed and breed.
The distressed condition of the three most familiar pods of whales was laid bare before us this August through news coverage of an orca mother who kept the body of her newly born dead calf afloat for nearly three weeks. That sad spectacle was followed in September by coverage of a young emaciated adult female who trailed behind her pod mates, despite attempts to feed and medicate her, until she finally disappeared.
The death of J-50, the calf and the earlier death of a young male, lowered the population of the three whale pods to 74, from a peak of 98 about 20 years ago. And while researchers continue to follow the pregnancies of three whales, there has not been a successful birth for three years among the Southern Residents.
Compared to three other West Coast populations of orcas, the Southern Residents are the most vulnerable to the conditions that we have created for them in the waters of the southern Salish Sea and the coastal waters of Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Specifically, those impacts include drastically declining runs of chinook and other salmon on which the orcas feed; impacts from vessel noise and traffic that hampers the whales’ communication and foraging for prey; and the presence of toxic chemicals from runoff and outfalls that effect the health of the whales and their prey.
As numerous and far-ranging as those impacts, the solutions that restore the ecosystem — as well as the salmon runs and viability of the orcas — will also need to be multifaceted.
Those are now laid out among the first round of 36 recommendations in a report from the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force to Gov. Jay Inslee. The task force began meeting in March and brought together lawmakers, state agency staff and representatives from environmental, agricultural, utility, tribal, fisheries and whale watch groups. Presented to Inslee on Friday, the report divides its recommendations among strategies to increase the abundance of chinook salmon, decrease the harassment and noise that impedes orcas’ hunting, and reduce the exposure of the orcas and their prey to toxic contaminants.
The solutions won’t come without costs or changes for nearly all in the state, and much of it will require action by the Legislature, federal, state and local agencies and others.
Among the most notable recommendations:
A three- to five-year moratorium of whale watch boats and other restrictions for private boats;
Increased spill from the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to improve the survival and returns of salmon;
Continued removal of barriers, such as culverts in streams that block salmon, prioritized for those with greatest benefit to chinook;
Acceleration of a state ban on contaminants including PCBs still found in hatchery fish food, paints, lubricants and other products;
Increased funding for estuary enhancement and conservation programs; and
Increased hatchery production of chinook salmon.
The recommendations vary between those with short- and long-term results.
Increasing the spill of water over dams is seen by advocates as one of the best immediate remedies to increasing the number of salmon, including native stocks and hatchery fish from chinook and other stocks. Increasing the spill rates could increase the return of spring chinook from averages of about 345,000 between 2000 and 2012 to returns of between 500,000 to 1 million, said Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, in a recent meeting with the editorial board.
The report also recommends removal of two dams on Puget Sound rivers, the Nooksack in Whatcom County and Snohomish County’s Pilchuck River. Until recently, the Pilchuck dam provided drinking water to Granite Falls, but the city no longer uses that source of water and has sought the assistance of the Tulalip Tribes to remove the dam, which blocks 14 miles of the upper Pilchuck.
But the report puts off for further study a recommendation to breach the four Lower Snake River dams, east of the Snake’s confluence with the Columbia, near the Tri-Cities.
While the Southern Residents spend significant time in and around the San Juan Islands, they spend much of the winter feeding on salmon from the Columbia Basin, making dam removal a significant long-term solution.
The breaching of the four Snake River dams has long been seen as controversial, particularly in Eastern Washington, because of the dams’ economic role for the region in providing hydroelectric power and barge transportation and irrigation for agriculture.
But those impacts aren’t without solutions, said Sean O’Leary with the Northwest Energy Coalition, and Todd True with Earth Justice, during the same meeting.
While the electricity the dams provide is important, it isn’t irreplaceable, O’Leary said. A study commissioned by the energy coalition found that the dams produce about 4 percent of the region’s electricity but could be replaced with a mix of wind, solar and energy efficiency programs that would add about $1 a month to the electrical power bills of most consumers.
Also, barge use, which has been on the decline and requires an 85 percent taxpayer subsidy for dredging and lock and dam maintenance, could be replaced by increasing the capacity of existing rail lines. Irrigation, with some upgrades to infrastructure, could also be easily maintained following removal of the “run of the river” dams.
True, in meetings with groups such as a Tri-Cities Rotary club, says he met resistance to the proposal to breach the dams, but said people were willing to listen to the potential for economic opportunity, such as new energy projects and improved rail infrastructure that removing the dams could mean for the region.
A decision on the dams’ fate should be made soon, however. The dams’ turbines, installed in the mid-1960s and early-1970s, are nearing their 50-year service life, meaning replacement would also add to the cost of electricity. Replacing the turbines and continued maintenance on the dams could commit the region to maintaining them for decades, further frustrating efforts to rebuild salmon runs.
Western Washington residents will see their own sacrifices, challenges and costs, but refusing to take action on the recommendations in the report can only mean a continued loss of salmon stocks and the eventual extinction of the Southern Resident orcas.