Puget Sound Kings: Orca Survival

Photo: John Durban/Oregon State University

Our southern resident killer whales, the local, salmon-eating orcas, are starving to death. Literally. And my last post, about the small size of the king salmon we boated this summer, and how we ate them, has me thinking a lot about the whales we see on a fairly regular basis around our home waters. There are currently 75 SRKWs left. Not seventy-five thousand. Not seventy-five hundred. Seventy. Five. Period. They haven’t had a live birth in three years. And the nation was transfixed last month by the story of a mourning mother whale who carried her stillborn baby for 17 days and a thousand miles. Heartbreaking, to say the least.

These whales mean a lot to me personally. Like me, they are salmon fisherman, with a strong preference for the fatty flesh of large Chinook salmon. I’ve fished around them, watched them, and once, spent a night in a tent on the west shore of San Juan Island, listening to them breathe as they slept not more than 100 feet away. But more than any personal connection, the southern resident killer whales, as the apex predator of our Salish Sea, are the canary-in-the-coal-mine of our local waters.

Unlike the healthier populations of transient, marine-mammal-eating killer whales, SRKWs not only prefer Chinook salmon, they need them to survive. Specifically, the scientists tell us, they need large, fat-laden wild Chinook salmon. But over the last century, the size and fat content of these fish has decreased precipitously–before 1920, the average size of an adult Puget Sound king was about 25 pounds. In recent years, the average has fallen below 10 pounds per fish. This summer, at least for us, the average was probably closer to seven.

The overall numbers have plummeted as well: Today, we are at less than 10% of the historical population of Puget Sound wild Chinook. There are a number of factors involved, but the dominant forces that have shrunk the population–and the individual fish themselves–are an intensive open-ocean, mixed-stock commercial fishery, exacerbated by heavy reliance on hatchery production. In short, the only fish that survive the harvest are those that spend as little time as possible (i.e., mature quickly) in the kill zone off the coast of British Columbia. We are selecting for fish that mature at a younger age and smaller size. Add the inbreeding, domestication and lack of diversity–which result in poor overall survival–found in hatchery salmon, and it’s no wonder the orcas are starving.

If we want to save the last of our southern resident killer whales, we need both short- and long-term solutions. In the short term, simply put, the whales need more king salmon to eat. Right now.

That leaves two options to feed the whales immediately: We can either ramp up hatchery production, or reduce open-ocean harvest. Not surprisingly, Governor Inslee has recommended a large increase in hatchery Chinook production. This means nobody needs to stop fishing, and theoretically, there will be more fish for sport fishermen and commercial fishermen as well. It also means more money for the hatchery industry. In other words, a “painless” and politically popular decision.

The other option, to curtail ocean fisheries, would be incredibly unpopular by people who vote. It would hurt commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, and tribal and government-run hatcheries. But hatcheries are a part of what got us to this point in the first place. More importantly, science shows that the addition of more hatchery fish frequently results in fewer fish available for harvest, by humans or whales. And, since we know that the presence of hatchery fish works as a powerful detriment to wild fish recovery, Governor Inslee’s recommendation could actually work counter to the desired goal of providing more food for SRKWs in both short- and long term. Shooting ourselves in the foot, as it were. And it puts us in the uncomfortable position of choosing to further endanger one endangered species (wild Chinook) to save another (SRKW).

So the only real short-term solution is the painful one. We need to fish less. That would involve shifting open-ocean fisheries to areas closer to river mouths (the salmons’ destinations) so we can know which fish we are harvesting, and allow the orcas to have the “first shot” at larger numbers of Chinook salmon. No extra money for the hatchery industry. And probably an overall reduction in sport and comercial fishing opportunities. This would clearly upset a fair number of voters, making it more difficult for elected officials who support such a plan to be reelected. But it’s the job of responsible government to make unpopular decisions for the greater good. Especially when a vast majority of published, peer-reviewed scientific studies support those unpopular decisions. If saving southern resident killer whales is truly what we consider to be a greater good, this it the time for our officials, including Governor Inslee, to listen to the science and do the right thing.

And that’s just the beginning. SRKWs feed off the mouth of the Columbia River in winter to take advantage of the highest-fat-content salmon of the year–spring Chinook bound for Idaho’s Snake, Clearwater and Salmon Rivers. Those fish, like Puget Sound summer kings, have also shrunk dramatically in size and number. Last September, I spent days traveling up and down those rivers in Idaho looking at miles of empty gravel riffles. Habitat that should have been packed with spawning spring Chinook. But the four lower Snake River dams have taken a brutal toll on these fish, as well as the prized wild B-run steelhead. We need to redouble our efforts to remove these obsolete dams. But I’ve also recently learned that there’s a quicker potential option, and since the state of the orcas is dire, I think we need to consider it: Opening up the locks at these dams and allowing the reservoirs to drain and the river to run freely through them. It’s not in lieu of removing dams, just a quicker way to gain similar benefits in a much shorter period of time.

Anyway, these are the options I hope Governor Inslee, and the task force he’s assembled to address the SRKW situation, will consider. And implement. But given the unpopular nature of what I’m suggesting, and a politician’s need for reelection, I’m not holding my breath. Look at climate change: A staggering majority of scientists tell us it’s happening, we caused it, and the effects will be catastrophic. And yet we elected a President and a majority in congress who not only refuse to act, or even believe the science, but are in fact working to deconstruct even the smallest efforts to stop heating up our planet. If our governor wants to be seen as the rational, scientifically driven politician, which I believe he does, I suggest he study up on the science of salmon and not make hatcheries his own version of climate denial.

Sometimes You Win

In August, after celebrating a First Salmon ceremony with our Lummi friends,  we were touring the Tribal Center with Darryl Hillaire. His phone rang. He answered it and spoke with a grave expression and hushed tone. Cooke Aquaculture’s net-pen salmon farm on nearby Cypress Island had collapsed that morning, releasing hundreds of thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. It was a sour and alarming note to end our time with fellow salmon people.

In September, the kids and I made signs and took to the water to protest Cooke’s net-pen facility just off our home island. This net pen, the site of past viral outbreaks and source of chemical and fecal pollution, is outrageously situated adjacent to the Orchard Rocks Marine Conservation Area. The event was planned by Wild Fish Conservancy long before the Cypress Island incident, but the disaster added urgency to what we were doing. More importantly, a wider group of citizens, the media and politicians were paying attention now.

Last Friday, Governor Jay Inslee, signed into law the bill banning non-native net-pen salmon farming in Washington state. Outright victories in the fish conservation world can be few and far between, but after years of trying, this one came together quickly. Huge thanks to Wild Fish Conservancy, State Senator Kevin Ranker (who sponsored the bill), and all the activists, advocates and citizens who protested, called and raised enough of a ruckus to make this happen. It’s a big win for the Salish Sea, wild salmon, and, on a personal level, a great lesson in democracy for Skyla and Weston. We are stoked!

A Good Day

The protest to stop the net-pen salmon farms in Puget Sound was a bit overshadowed here (and in our lives) by the loss of our friend Bruce Hill. But in many ways, the flotilla fit the model of what Bruce always taught: It was part of a well-planned, strategic campaign (led by Wild Fish Conservancy), the kind of campaign that can actually create change. In my mind, it was also an important opportunity for the kids to participate in shaping their own future. We’ve been talking about the net pens and how they impact the Sound, and the night before, we discussed how to articulate what we were feeling in short, strong messaging for our signs. On the day of the protest, everything went perfectly. The weather was warm and calm, many boats–kayaks, SUPs, sailboats, commercial fishing boats, canoes, a boat from the Suquamish Tribe, sport-fishing boats, bow riders–showed up, and Lummi Island Wild’s enormous tender, the Galactic Ice, with our friend Riley Starks at the helm, led a procession around the dirty, putrid-smelling net pens. More importantly, the flotilla was well-attended by media, with crews from the local Island paper on up to NPR and Reuters there to cover the event. Mission accomplished.

And on the way home, with warm evening light silvery on the glassy Sound, the kids and I stopped to enjoy some of what we’re fighting to save–strong, beautiful, wild sea-run cutthroat trout. I think Bruce would approve.

Idaho Film Shoot

The film project I’m working on took us into the Sawtooths in search of salmon 6,000 feet above sea level and 900 miles from the sea. We hiked, waded and drove miles of gorgeous water and perfect habitat that should have been alive with thousands of spawning Chinook salmon. And yet, we found almost none. The miracle of nature that once brought millions of salmon so far inland seems to have been undone by a combination of environmental events (spring drought during outmigration, hot water in the ocean) and human factors (dams, reservoirs, hatchery genetics) that conspired to wipe out this year’s run. The days and river miles passed, and it was tough to keep our mood up–all that habitat, empty. I keep wondering, what happens to the trout, whitefish, bears, wolves, trees, grass, deer, elk and all the other species that depend on salmon to deliver critical nutrients, when the keystone species can’t provide?

Old School Activism

Sometimes the old internet just isn’t enough. And with the catastrophic failure of Cooke Aquaculture’s open-water net-pen salmon farm on Cypress Island “spilling” hundreds of thousands of invasive Atlantic salmon into the Sound, the kids and I wanted to make sure word is out about the upcoming protest.

Now is the time to strike, as they say, while the iron is hot. In response to the Cypress disaster, the State of Washington has enacted a temporary ban on new net-pen approvals, but we really need a permanent ban. One that stops Cooke from building their new facility off the mouth of the newly restored Elwha River. And one that also gets rid of existing net pens and all their associated chemicals, drugs, waste, pathogens and parasites that kill wild salmon and pollute the public resource.

Let’s gather off the south end of Bainbridge Island, where Cooke has another net-pen anchored to the Orchard Rocks State Marine Protected Area, on September 16th and make a real statement. (For details, click HERE) I think the media, the public and our state government are finally ready to tell Cooke they and their net pens are no longer welcome in the Salish Sea.