Orca Survival Status Quo No Longer an Option
L-Pod orca blowing bubbles, as seen from San Juan Island’s Westside Preserve Land Bank photo: Joan Poor
by Eleanor Hines
Imagine you shop at the only grocery store in town, the place you’ve always loaded up on food. Soon, you notice the shelves aren’t being restocked — they just get emptier and emptier. One day, the store replaces its once-quiet background music with blaring death metal. You try to pick up something at the deli, but no one can hear you. As the shelves become emptier and the store more chaotic, you struggle to pick up enough food to live on.
For the Salish Sea’s remaining southern resident orca, this is what they face every day: a declining supply of their primary prey — Chinook, or king salmon — and vessel noise interfering with their ability to locate already-scarce food. Several southern residents exhibit “peanut head syndrome,” a telltale sign of malnourishment, most recently in one of the few remaining females capable of giving birth. It creates an indentation around the blowhole, her skin drawing tight around her bones where more fat tissue should be.
With only 75 remaining southern residents — the lowest the population has been in over 30 years — we are in our last chapter of recovery efforts to prevent their extinction. As with most problems confronting the planet we share with orca, there’s a dizzying mix of factors that contribute to starvation. Consequently, advocates sometimes disagree on which factors to prioritize. And when you add in the powerful interests of businesses and the shifting political landscape across several jurisdictions, you can end up with a gridlock of inaction that maintains the status quo.
Status quo is no longer an option if we want orca and salmon to survive.
The hard truth is there’s simply no way to pick one battle to save southern resident orca. We have to address them all. And if we want our children to experience the recovery and not extinction of this majestic animal — one that Lummi Nation and Coast Salish people consider family — we have to do it all now.
Here in Whatcom and Skagit counties, we may have the greatest opportunity in Washington to influence orca recovery. The most important Chinook salmon populations — the ones designated as a top priority for recovery — are in northern and southern Puget Sound, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That means the actions we — those reading this article right now — take today to safeguard the waters in our own backyard are critical. Here is a brief look into why orca aren’t getting enough food, and what needs to be done.
Lower Streams, Less Salmon
An international team of scientists reviewed 40 years of data and concluded that orca recovery will require a 30 percent increase in Chinook salmon numbers. Southern residents tend to eat mostly Chinook, the largest and most energy-rich salmon. Why are some key Chinook populations declining, bringing local orca pods down with them?
The loss of river and stream habitat for spawning and juvenile salmon, along with lower water flows in these areas, are a large part of the problem Chinook salmon face in the Nooksack region. The reduced flows in our area are primarily the result of diverting water for competing uses and climate change’s impact on precipitation.
It’s easy to think of water as unlimited in the rainy Pacific Northwest. But over the last 30 years, water levels during our driest months frequently fall below levels salmon need to survive in many streams and rivers in Whatcom County. We’re seeing unpredictable snowpack levels, declining rainfall in the spring and summer, earlier snowmelt some years, and greater demands imposed by a steadily increasing population.
And climate change means summer droughts are becoming more regular and longer-lasting. Low water flows will become the new norm for some of our region’s creeks and rivers.
Is it possible to ensure there is enough water in rivers for salmon and people? We believe the answer is yes — but only if local governments and the communities they serve are willing to be bold and move beyond partial solutions.
The first step is accelerating work being done to identify how much water people, farms and industry use, and how that water use impacts streams and aquifers. It’s critical we prioritize gathering this information in order to establish what interconnections exist, as it underpins so much necessary work going forward.
Next, we need to conserve what water we use and offset the impacts to nearby streams, especially during the drier months. We also need to curb further loss of habitat and wetlands, and start gaining habitat by restoring areas in and around rivers and streams.
This is a critical opportunity for Whatcom County to take a strong leadership role in the region, coordinating watershed management and keeping clean water in our streams when salmon need it most. And we have to be certain mitigation projects for habitat and wetland loss from development are having the desired effect of recovering salmon — if they aren’t, the county must adjust its approach.
The Whatcom County Council’s role in salmon recovery includes ensuring watershed management is a priority and stays adequately funded well into the future. Although it’s far from a silver bullet, the council recently showed its willingness to lead, setting aside $50,000 in the 2019 budget to begin a countywide water conservation program.
As the program starts taking shape, we believe it should include measuring water use countywide and setting guidelines for efficient agricultural, commercial, and residential water use. For the council’s efforts to be successful, it must stay focused on the goal: putting enough water in our streams for salmon to bounce back, and quickly. It will also need broad buy-in and support from across Whatcom County.
Salmon and orca can’t wait. Courageous, immediate and dedicated leadership from all of us, and our elected officials, has to start now.
Southern resident orca J-35 spyhopping. photo: Joan Poor
Not only is the orcas’ food scarce, but scientists are indicating the orcas are having more and more trouble locating Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea due to the noise from increasing vessel traffic. To find food, orca communicate with each other and use complex echolocation. In general, sound travels faster and longer distances underwater, and vessel noise and disturbance affect orca behavior immensely — they expend extra energy avoiding boats, and noise makes salmon harder to find.
Thankfully, reducing these impacts is the most immediate and straightforward action Washington can take.
Other problems for orca, like toxics in sediment or habitat improvement, may take decades to notice an improvement. Our Washington state Legislature could put a bill on Governor Inslee’s desk soon to establish “go slow” zones within a half mile of orca, prohibit vessels from getting within 300 yards of an orca, and require permits for commercial whale-watching vessels.
This would go a long way to help orca communicate and make it easier to find Chinook, and might be passed into law by the end of April.
Contaminated Food Chain
Critical habitat in Whatcom and Skagit counties, like Cherry Point and Bellingham Bay, provide healthy rearing habitat for young salmon and forage fish like herring, Chinook’s primary prey. This habitat is in danger on several fronts.
The Canadian federal government is pushing hard for a dangerous expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline into British Columbia and Washington. The pipeline would send 400 tankers carrying impossible-to-clean tar sands bitumen — an even dirtier substitute for crude oil — through the Salish Sea each year. This raises the possibility of a catastrophic oil spill, which could decimate salmon populations enough that orca would almost certainly never recover.
While oil spill threats loom, there is another, perhaps even more immediate threat: existing pollution. Oil leaks, brake dust, and more from our region’s millions of vehicles wash untreated into the Salish Sea every time it rains. This stormwater, along with toxic substances left decades ago by waterfront industries harm forage fish and young salmon, before building up in orcas’ tissue when they eat the salmon.
Persistent toxics like heavy metals and some petroleum byproducts reduce growth, alter protein levels and reduce disease resistance. And these toxics never stay in one place.
A 2016 U.S. Geological Survey study of toxic substances in sand lance, another small fish eaten by Chinook salmon, found that chemicals like PCBs get passed from mothers to their eggs. Every single egg sample contained PCBs, including samples from Clayton Beach and Lopez Island.
The chemicals also pass from mother orca to calves, who grow up eating the same contaminated salmon, leaving southern resident orca among the most contaminated animals on the planet.
As they make their transition from the freshwater systems of their birth to the ocean of their adulthood, young salmon spend time in Bellingham Bay, and Bellingham’s waterfront was an industrial epicenter for over 100 years. That activity left PCBs, heavy metals petroleum byproducts, and more.
The good news is that we can make a difference for orca right now. Washington has plenty of tools at its disposal to remove contaminants and reduce the risk of future contamination.
The 1989 Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA) provides funding and standards for cleanup sites like the 12 in Bellingham Bay, and thousands of others across Washington. We have to ensure MTCA stays funded by the state Legislature, which — so far — has happened.
Bills moving through the state Legislature as you read this article, like the Pollution Prevention for Healthy People and Puget Sound Act (SB 5135), could make a real difference by better managing consumer products containing harmful, long-lasting substances, and keeping them out of Puget Sound.
Other bills have been introduced to prevent oil spills and increase funding for volunteer citizen scientists to expand monitoring for forage fish populations in Whatcom and Skagit. These volunteers help establish baseline data to assist natural resource agencies make better policies to protect the food that salmon and orca rely on.
RE Sources collaborates with the Department of Ecology, the Port of Bellingham and others by giving technical guidance and educating the community on toxic site cleanups in Bellingham Bay. Government agencies and the people they serve need to have a dialogue and a robust public input process to hopefully rid the bay of contamination, or at least eliminate exposure routes to contamination.
Southern resident L-Pod orca near San Juan Island photo: Joan Poor
What Can We Do?
The future of the Salish Sea’s orca is uncertain, but there is still time to take action to give them the best chance of survival. We have the roadmap — all we need is people power.
The heartbreaking August 2018 journey of the southern resident orca Tahlequah, as she carried her dead calf for over two weeks, was a wake-up call to everyone who lives by the Salish Sea. The groundswell of empathy and public engagement that followed made one thing clear: our communities won’t sit idly by while the most iconic animal in the Salish Sea perishes from preventable causes.
Stopping orca extinction and restoring salmon would not be possible without the leadership of the Lummi Nation and other Coast Salish tribes’ efforts. Lummi Nation and other Coast Salish tribes set out on boats to feed two matriarch orca, and have been especially steadfast champions for salmon and orca in this pivotal time. Their work to push back against expanded fossil fuel infrastructure, and to protect and restore salmon populations and habitat reminds us that the bold, necessary steps to protect orca and salmon are doable — if we choose to take them.
The outcry from the ailing orca and their human advocates made its way to the capitol steps. Over 500 people from nearly every part of Washington ventured to Olympia in January, including me, talking with lawmakers and urging them to do everything in their power to keep orca from extinction. Some lawmakers are taking bold steps and fighting for all the solutions put forward by Governor Inslee’s Orca Recovery Task Force. A whole suite of bills aimed at alleviating stresses on orca and Chinook salmon is making its way through the state Legislature.
Since political will shifts like the tides, it’s going to take all of us to fight for the southern resident orca so that Tahlequah’s story never happens to another mother orca.
Take action with us. At RE Sources, we have tools to help you pass important laws, find learning opportunities, volunteer, and more. Visit www.re-sources.org to find out how, and to see what bills are moving forward in the final weeks of the 2019 state legislative session. Thank you for showing up when it matters most.
Eleanor Hines is the North Sound Baykeeper and Lead Scientist at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. She has experience in water quality, citizen science, marine policy, volunteer organization, and citizen engagement and has worked with the Surfrider Foundation, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, and the Whatcom County Marine Resources Committee. She has also done risk assessment modeling in South Africa with the Institute of Natural Resources to provide solutions to water issues.