Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent executive order to recover southern resident killer whales is a good start if it sparks a long-term effort to recover both orcas and the salmon they depend on.
The decline of the southern resident killer whale population reflects the decline of chinook across their entire range, including Puget Sound. The orcas have been listed as endangered since 2005 and their numbers continue to drop: from 98 in 1995 to 75 today. Chinook have been listed as threatened under the ESA since 1999 and continue to disappear.
If we want orcas, we need chinook salmon. If we want chinook, we need to make sure they have the habitat to spawn, grow and thrive.
Salmon management is a three-legged stool of habitat protection and restoration, hatchery supplementation and careful harvest management, but the stool is wobbly because the legs are not equally strong.
We have cut salmon harvest by 80-90 percent in the past four decades, but that hasn’t solved the problem. Hatcheries built to make up for decline of naturally spawning salmon populations because of lost habitat have helped, but for many years, they have been underfunded and under fire for potential effects on wild salmon populations.
Meanwhile, habitat – such as freshwater streams with natural buffers and plenty of cold, clean water, and healthy nearshore marine waters that support young salmon and the prey species they rely on – has been largely ignored. But both hatchery and naturally spawning salmon need the same good quality habitat to thrive.
Although we have worked hard to restore degraded habitat, the state has failed to adequately protect existing habitat. The result is that we are losing habitat faster than we can restore it.
If we don’t fix the habitat leg, salmon will continue to slide off the stool toward extinction. Conservation standards for habitat must be at least as strong as those for harvest and hatcheries.
Boosting hatchery production of chinook is a good short-term approach to help struggling orca populations until the difficult work of habitat restoration is farther along.
The governor’s order includes efforts to reduce toxics – including polluted stormwater runoff. Our orcas have high levels of PCBs and other toxics absorbed from Puget Sound’s polluted waters. Tribes have long supported reducing sources of pollution but were surprised by the order’s singling out hatchery salmon feed as a major source of PCBs in southern resident killer whales. That’s simply not true.
Another goal of the executive order is to reduce effects of vessel traffic on orcas. These include vessel noise that interferes with the orcas’ ability to hunt and communicate, the dangers of ship strikes and stress caused by boater harassment.
The order highlights the whale watching industry’s annual $60 million contribution to the regional economy, which supports hundreds of jobs. Unfortunately, the stress caused by being chased by whale watching boats can contribute directly to orcas’ death over time. That’s considered a “direct take” by ESA standards, and it’s against federal law.
Two of the biggest impacts to orcas are other marine mammals themselves, such as harbor seals and California sea lions. Like orcas, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but unlike orcas, their populations in Puget Sound have exploded in recent years. Today seals and sea lions are eating far more salmon than are harvested by Indian and non-Indian fishermen combined, denying orcas the food they desperately need. A joint tribal, state and federal effort is needed to address the overpopulation of harbor seals and California sea lions along the coast and in Puget Sound.
The executive order creates a task force of tribal, state, federal and local governments and stakeholders to make recommendations on funding and legislation to protect southern resident killer whales. Their first report is due in November; a second is due in 2019 just before the task force will be disbanded.
To its credit, the state Legislature has approved funding for a long-term orca recovery plan, increased hatchery chinook production and other orca related recovery work.
The big question is will this effort address the shortfalls in habitat protection needed to recover chinook and increase food availability for the orca? So far, the executive order is lacking in that department. It will be up to the taskforce to grab the opportunity to shore up the third and most neglected leg of the salmon management: Habitat.
Unless the real work of restoring and protecting salmon habitat is prioritized, we will continue to nibble around the edges of a problem that is growing bigger every day.
Lorraine Loomis is the Chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.