Fighting for Survival in the Salish Sea
Finding solutions to save the resident orcas and the salmon they depend on.
By Emily Crawford, published originally in Harbor’s Magazine.
On a crisp fall afternoon, the big leaf maples are splashes of gold on the high bluffs of San Juan Island. Hiking the rugged coastline between the lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park and the crescent beach of Deadman Bay, we keep an eye out for the island’s most charismatic members, the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Despite their frequent appearances in Haro Strait and along the island’s famed west side, the whales face steep odds. Last July, one grieving orca, J35, demonstrated this to the world when she carried her deceased calf through her home waters for more than two weeks, during what should have been a season of abundance for her newborn.
The plight of J35, also known as Tahlequah, and her relatives in the J, K, and L pods, increased the spotlight and pressure on the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force designated by an executive order from Governor Inslee last spring. The Task Force is charged with preparing a comprehensive report and recommendations for recovering the Southern Residents, with a full draft due by October 1, 2018.
The population of the Southern Residents is at an all-time low of 74 members, according to the Center for Whale Research located in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. The organization has studied the population since 1976. The loss of J35’s calf – the first born in three years to the resident orcas – places the survival of the Southern Residents on a precipice.
A severe lack of the preferred diet of the Southern Residents, mostly Chinook salmon, along with increased vessel noise and traffic, and rising levels of toxins in their home waters, have created a triple threat in a battle the orcas are losing, said Jacques White, executive director of Long Live the Kings (LLTK), a science-based organization working to recover endangered salmon and steelhead. More concerning is the Southern Residents are currently heavily dependent upon the success of our hatchery production. “About 70-80% of the Chinook returning to Washington waters were born in hatcheries,” White said.
As a member of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, White and LLTK scientists provide technical expertise to the larger group and to a working group focused on how best to increase prey availability for the Southern Residents.
For the last several decades, LLTK has worked to recover wild salmon and reform hatchery practices to prevent negative impacts on wild fish. Their work has brought several salmon populations back from the brink of extinction, while establishing sustainable fishing opportunities to meet harvest obligations. Along the way, LLTK has contributed to the food supply for the Southern Residents.
Now, LLTK is focused on providing hard-won data collected as part of a major effort to decipher one of the greatest mysteries of the Salish Sea – why juvenile Chinook, coho and steelhead are dying at radically increased numbers in marine waters – to resource managers and the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.
In 2014, LLTK and their Canadian partners, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, brought together U.S. and Canadian scientists and more than 60 federal, state, tribal, academic, private and nonprofit organizations to launch a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, and highly coordinated research program. The ambitious Salish Sea Marine Survival Project seeks to discover the causes of up to tenfold decline in salmon and steelhead survival in the Salish Sea—defined as the combined marine waters of Puget Sound, Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Their collective discoveries have direct implications for the survival of the Southern Residents. The Marine Survival Project “has crystalized our focus,” over the past five years, White said. “If we don’t answer that question, we are not going to recover the salmon or the Southern Resident killer whales.”
Research from the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project suggests several factors may be contributing to the decline in survival rates of juvenile wild and hatchery salmon. While the science is ongoing, some factors are beginning to rise to the top, including limited food supply for salmon and their predators, increased predation, contaminants, a lack of estuary habitat and the interplay between changing ecosystem conditions and today’s hatchery practices.
Hatchery Chinook salmon stocks are less diverse than wild Chinook and they are generally released in a short window, rather than over a broad time period more like natural migrations. With many Chinook juveniles entering the system at once, predators may key in on the fish, or there may not be sufficient food available to support so many fish in the system at one time. LLTK recommends state, federal and tribal hatchery managers test whether diversifying their Chinook stocks – by releasing fish during different and broader time frames and releasing different types of Chinook – will increase survival of adult Chinook and change the time when these fish return to our waters, Michael Schmidt, LLTK deputy director said. Viewing the hatchery practices in light of orca recovery, “the whales need more Chinook salmon, they need them returning more often throughout the year, and they need bigger fish.”
The increased abundance of seals and sea lions throughout the Salish Sea is also a concern. Recent studies suggest these pinnipeds are competing with the Southern Residents for food, and the impact may be “several times that of all fishing,” White said. “We may be doing a really good job of supporting species that are not in decline to the detriment of the endangered ones.”
To give juvenile salmon, steelhead, and forage fish a better chance at survival, LLTK recommends further research and a comprehensive management approach. Predation hots spots must be identified and site-specific strategies developed that may include removing artificial haul outs, addressing infrastructure that restricts salmon passage, changing hatchery strategies that may attract predators, and increasing the abundance of forage fish or other fish that are staple food for pinnipeds.
Habitat and food are critical to the survival of Chinook salmon. Estuary habitat, currently limited in Puget Sound, is crucial for providing juvenile Chinook a place to grow before entering the open marine environment. Once the Chinook are in the marine environment, they need high quality food like forage fish and certain species of zooplankton to grow rapidly. LLTK recommends more emphasis on estuary restoration, recovering populations of Pacific herring and sand lance that will provide the most benefit to juvenile Chinook, and tracking our zooplankton, the cornerstone of our food web.
LLTK’s expertise on the Task Force has ensured the members working on prey recovery take into account the many threats facing salmon, and consider recovery methods backed by research findings.
In mid-September, one week before the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force was to release its draft report for public comment, a three-year-old sick and malnourished female orca, “Scarlet” (J50), was declared missing and presumed dead by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Lynne Barre, director of Southern Resident recovery for NOAA, acknowledged that the death of J50 was a “low point” at a standing room only public meeting held in Friday Harbor. She stated a positive outcome from the public outpouring of anger and grief would be “broad public support for the more difficult steps needed to make things better for the whales.”
The steps the Task Force is considering are hotly debated and complex in scope, bringing to light the ways the Salish Sea and its various inhabitants are connected together and to the greater Pacific Northwest. In addition to the recommendations provided by LLTK, proposed actions include increasing flows through or breaching the four Lower Snake River dams to help salmon, requiring permits for recreational whale watching, “no go zones” or extension of safety zones around whales from 200 yards to 400 yards, increased funding for hatchery production and fish habitat restoration and protection, and reducing pollution, among many others. The Task Force must submit its final report to the governor by November 1.
Meanwhile, autumn unfolds in warm days, cool nights and the first squalls of the season. The number of whale watching vessels in Haro Strait slowly dwindles as vacationers return to the mainland and busy schedules. And the J, K and L pods continue to search the length and breadth of the Salish Sea and beyond for their increasingly elusive prey.