Impassioned task force faces the challenge of saving endangered orcas

Passion for saving Puget Sound’s killer whales is driving an exhaustive search for ways to restore the whales to health and rebuild their population, but hard science must contribute to the search for workable answers.

I recently updated readers on the efforts of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, appointed by the governor to change the course of a population headed toward extinction. Read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound or the version reprinted in the Kitsap Sun.

I began the story by mentioning the term “no silver bullet,” a term I have heard numerous times from folks involved in the task force. They are emphasizing how difficult it is to restore a damaged ecosystem, while orcas wait for food at the top of a complex food web. All sorts of people are looking for a quick fix, something that will increase the number of Chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — within their range, which includes the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean from Vancouver Island to Northern California.

The quickest and simplest answers:

  • Increase the number of fish produced in hatcheries,
  • Kill large numbers of seals and sea lions that eat Chinook,
  • Tear down four Snake River dams, or
  • Strategically reduce fishing that catches Chinook before the whales have a chance to eat them.

If any of these ideas seems like a quick-and-easy solution to you, then read my story for an overview of the problem and then go deeper by reading up on the subject. Each of these issues is subject to extensive scientific and political debate.

While my story touched on these issues, I will try to cover them more thoroughly as the task force goes about its deliberations and develops an emergency plan scheduled for completion this fall. The task force is also asked to develop a long-term strategy for the whales, which probably involves restoring a healthy food web — an effort coordinated by the Puget Sound Partnership.

I have to admit that I was amused by an online comment in the Kitsap Sun: “It is an easy fix,” the commenter asserted. “Stop all salmon fishing for several years; yes, including the Indians.”

I’m not sure the writer even read my story, but I have heard this simple proposal before. It definitely sounds easy, and eliminating all salmon fishing would be an interesting experiment. But the tremendous economic, political and cultural consequences makes the idea a nonstarter. Besides, the whales wouldn’t even touch the large numbers of chum, pink, sockeye and coho salmon produced naturally and in fish hatcheries throughout the Northwest.

Some experts do believe that fishing should be curtailed further to protect wild Chinook and other “weak stocks.” Certainly the benefits and problems of hatcheries remain a subject of ongoing scientific and social debate. The killer whales bring a new urgency to the discussion of salmon management — but humans remain part of the equation.

I can see how the killer whale task force is trying to maneuver through a minefield of political, economic and social issues to solve an environmental problem. Solutions must be logical and convincing to build enough support for action — even when the goal is to save something universally cherished, such as the killer whales. And so passion and hope continue to be blended with science, and we will see what comes out in the end.

At the last task force meeting, the death of a newborn orca was on the minds of many members, as national and international news reports described the mother, named Tahlequah, carrying her dead calf for days on end. The members also were thinking about a 3-year-old calf that was near death from malnutrition as experts prepared to take steps to bring her food and medication (NOAA Fisheries website).

While the task force’s efforts are focused on what the science tells us, Stephanie Solien, co-chair of the group, started off the meeting with a heartfelt discussion about how people are feeling a desperate need to help the orcas.

“What the J-pod orcas have clearly shown in their actions speak more profoundly than any human words,” she said. “This is what they have told the world: It is human actions that are responsible for the dead and stillborn calves, the sick and starving adults and the declining condition of the environment in which they live.

“As the grieving mother orca labored through the Salish Sea carrying her dead calf without rest, she brought us all to attention, demonstrating that her future and the future of her species is in our hands right now…,” she said. “We are together in what we feel, and we must be together in our actions. The only option for her survival and for ours is to act collectively with one strong determined will.”

You can listen to Stephanie reading her entire statement at 6:23 in the first video on this page.

Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, was among others who reflected personally on Tahlequah’s loss and the human connection.

“There is nothing worse than a parent who has to let their child go, and many of us have had those experiences within our lives,” Maia said, adding that emotion can be a force to bring people together with a common goal.

“I am feeling strength from this room and know that we have a chance here and now to seize the opportunity to make a difference for the future of the killer whale,” she continued. “I close by giving a scientific fact: Killer whales need to eat to survive. That’s science. We have an obligation from the bottom of our food web all the way to the top to make this happen. And that includes restoring and sustaining a healthy ecosystem.”

Maia’s statement begins at 35:28 in the first video, and there are other heartfelt thoughts offered as each task force member has a chance to speak during the introductions. The remainder of the first video covers initial options presented by the leaders of the task force’s working groups.

The second video includes reports that followed a break-out session in which members gave their opinions about the various options. A public comment period begins at 40:35 in that video.

4 thoughts on “Impassioned task force faces the challenge of saving endangered orcas

    1. Denise,
      Thank you for your comment. I’ve heard about seeding the oceans with iron for many years. As a result of your comment, I decided to see if I could find any new studies. The latest I could find that looks at all sides of the issue is an article in the May 23, 2017, edition of Nature. I also located some interesting findings in a March 3, 2016, report in Phys.Org.

      Results of experiments so far seem to be ambiguous, and everyone involved seems to be clamoring for more laboratory or limited-scale studies.

  1. i have long heard that the SRKWs were the most toxin loaded mammals – I guess from accumulating it up the food chain.

    But what about the transients that are here so much, or the grays and humpbacks. Or local seals and sea lions. Are they all toxin loaded too?

    1. Peter,

      I’ve been looking for a report that lists the toxic loads for a variety of marine mammals. No luck so far. I can tell you what I have heard from various researchers.

      In general, transient killer whales have higher toxic loads than resident killer whales. That’s because they eat seals and sea lions, which are higher in the food web than fish, which residents eat.

      Resident killer whales and harbor seals both eat fish, but residents generally live longer, so chemicals accumulate longer in their bodies. Seals often eat smaller fish than resident killer whales, so I would think that a 5-year-old killer whale would have a greater toxic load than a 5-year-old seal.

      Research has shown that gray and humpback whales have picked up contaminants. I would think that their concentrations would be lower than killer whales or pinnipeds.

      If anyone would like to share some specific numbers, feel free to chime in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Before you post, please complete the prompt below.

(Not a trick question) What color is the pink house?