To Save the Orcas, We Need to Stop Eating Their Lunch


Hard rains, big spiders; summer is gone. This summer’s big plus was the absence of wildfire smoke.  A minus was the frequent absence (until the past few days, when their appearance made the front page of the Seattle Times) of Southern Resident Killer Whales, better known as Puget Sound orcas.  Basically, the residents weren’t much in residence this year, going AWOL for weeks before finally appearing off Vancouver Island where the fishing – for their preferred chinook salmon – was presumably better. 

The decline in orca numbers, the deaths of their young, their many problems have been well documented, Can we save them? If history is any guide, the depressing answer is probably no.  The less depressing answer is maybe. Where should we start? Conceptually, it’s pretty simple, although if you consider people’s economic interests and identities, it gets complicated pretty fast.

But let’s keep it simple: Maybe we should stop eating their lunch.

After the killer whale dubbed Tahlequah carried her dead baby around Puget Sound for 17 days during the summer of 2018, Seattle chef Renee Erickson and other chefs said they would stop serving, and PCC Natural Market announced it would stop selling, chinook salmon.  (This is a moral stand and it sends a message, but of course it won’t accomplish much unless either regulation or a much wider consumer boycott deters people from catching them.)

Chinook salmon. Image: Flickr

Chinook salmon are these orcas’ main food, and these orcas are starving. As has been much discussed, a lack of food not only constitutes a problem on its own, but also makes other problems worse:  When orcas are malnourished, pollutants that build up in their fat get metabolized.  When salmon are few and far between, underwater noise from ships and the disturbances caused by freighters and whale-watching boats make it even harder for orcas to find food. 

Puget Sound chinook were listed as a threatened population 20 years ago. Some Columbia River populations have been listed longer than that. Chinook in Canada’s Fraser River are in trouble, too, as are chinook in the Sacramento and other rivers to the south.  So the orcas are an endangered species that depends on other threatened and endangered species for their survival.  This isn’t good.

We can’t reasonably hope to save them without demystifying a set of linguistic, political, and biological transformations have helped cause and conceal the reasons for their plight.  Demystifying these transformations may help find rational solutions to the problems.

Our resident killer whales that are no longer much in residence cover a lot of territory.  Orcas and salmon that swim all through the Salish Sea and for hundreds of miles along the Pacific Coast are transformed — through our own myopia — into Puget Sound salmon and whales whose problems have Puget Sound solutions. But we need to widen the lens. The main source of salmon for the orcas – and for human fishers – in the Salish Sea has always been the Fraser River which, last time I checked, was in Canada. Explains orca scientist and advocate Deborah Giles, who teaches a course in Marine Mammals of the Salish Sea at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratory, “Fraser River salmon were what brought the Southern Resident Killer Whales here.”

This summer’s rockslide that largely blocked the Fraser had unfortunate implications for the orcas.  As does the federal government’s decades-long refusal to seriously consider breaching the four controversial lower Snake River dams. 

Historically, a lot of Columbia River system chinook come from the Snake River watershed. And the early Snake River runs have been an important early-season food source for orcas that have just gotten through a long, lean winter.  The dams lessen their chances of survival as they swim to and from their spawning grounds.  Therefore, as scientists have said for years and Science Times just reported, breaching those dams may be a key to the orcas’ survival.

 The dams may also be critical to the future of salmon in the Columbia basin. As temperatures rise, most streams in the basin may grow too warm for salmon spawning. Higher-elevation streams will stay cooler. The best spawning habitat — apart from that in British Columbia above the impassable Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams — may lie high in the Idaho wilderness, above the dams on the lower Snake.

Some people hoped that Governor Jay Inslee’s orca task force, formed in the wake of Tahlequah’s sad journey, would recommend breaching the lower Snake River dams. And some people assumed it did so. It didn’t. Instead it recommended, and Inslee’s budget has funded, a “stakeholders’” group to consider ways of mitigating economic costs of breaching, if the feds decide to breach. The current process represents a step, or a possible step, or a kind of a step toward a rational consideration of breaching. It may help make the unthinkable thinkable, at least for some people.

But it won’t bring down the dams. In the short run, nothing will. Not under this administration. Not under any administration without years of study and planning and, of course, litigation.  Therefore, getting rid of the dams – necessary or not — isn’t a short-term solution. 

The Trump Administration is making it harder to choose as any kind of solution: If the administration gets its way, Endangered Species Act rules will bar any consideration of long-term future threats — i.e., climate change — in deciding whether or not a proposed action, such as continuing to operate the dams, will jeopardize a species’ recovery.

Well beyond the Salish Sea, chinook from the Columbia and Fraser, as well as the Elwha and other Puget Sound rivers, are caught off Vancouver Island and southeast Alaska.  When they’re marketed, threatened and endangered chinook from the Columbia and Fraser rivers are magically transformed into “wild-caught Alaskan salmon,” and by implication salmon that are sustainably-caught.  The catching of imperiled salmon far from home isn’t a new discovery; it wasn’t news even when Upstream, issued by a committee of the National Research Council, recognized it as a problem in 1996.

Giles points out that in fact only one percent of the chinook caught in the Southeast Alaska troll fishery actually come from Alaska. Half come from the Columbia River, and a lot from the Fraser.  Limiting those catches is easier said than done.

 “Fisheries have been reduced substantially since the [Pacific Salmon Treaty between the U.S. and Canada] was first ratified in 1985,” states a recent biological opinion from NOAA. “There were significant reductions associated with the 1999 Agreement and again in 2009. Further reductions are proposed in conjunction with the 2019 Agreement, but there was a practical limit to what could be achieved through the bilateral negotiation process . . . to mitigate the effects of harvest and other limiting factors that contributed to the reduced status of Puget Sound Chinook salmon and [Southern Resident Killer Whales].”   The biological opinion says the problem could be addressed through “a targeted funding initiative” – that currently has no approved projects and no funds.

At least partly as a result of these northern troll fisheries, big fish have been transformed into pretty-big fish.  That matters.  Bigger is better. Orcas presumably prefer chinook because chinook are larger and fattier than salmon of other species and therefore provide more calories of food per calorie spent hunting.  

When they’re out hunting for calories, what the orcas need isn’t numbers; it’s volume. “Orcas could get by with fewer fish if fish were larger,” says Wild Fish Conservancy executive director Kurt Beardslee.  If chinook were twice as big, an orca would need only half as many.  They used to be twice as big.  Between 1920 and 1975, Beardslee says, chinook lost half of their average size.  And some used to be much larger.

In the early 1990s, when removing the two old Elwha River dams started to look like a real possibility, some critics asked, What’s the use of getting big salmon back in the Elwha? Those damn Canadians will just catch them. Well, guess what? Salmon are dramatically repopulating the upper river, but yes, Canadians are catching them off Vancouver Island, and because they are, the 100-pound chinook that once appeared in the upper river probably aren’t coming back.

 It takes up to nine years to grow a really big chinook, Beardslee says, and those big fish not only provide more meat for each unit of energy an orca spends hunting them; they also provide more eggs. And those eggs may produce fish with better genetics. But those fish wind up swimming for years with salmon from other populations in places where commercial and sport fishers target them.  Very few will live long enough to grow big.

And hatchery fish never do grow that big.  Relying on hatcheries is “a short-sighted solution,” Giles says. “The whales need bigger fish than hatcheries are producing.” But relying on them is exactly what we plan to do. Long considered part of the problem for wild salmon, hatcheries have been magically transformed into part of the solution.

 Gov. Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force didn’t come with a recommendation on limiting harvest, but it did recommend pumping out more hatchery salmon for the orcas – which may or may not differ from the discredited historical practice of pumping them out for human commercial and sport fishers.  An independent, Congressionally-funded Hatchery Scientific Review Group (HSRG) has been reviewing hatchery management practices for years.  But to pave the way for the task force’s recommendations, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission suspended rules under which the HSRG has operated.  Dozens of scientists signed onto a letter of protest addressed to Inslee. 

Neither Giles nor anyone else thinks the whales could do without hatcheries in the very short term.  The argument that if we closed the hatcheries the orcas would starve is “disingenuous,” Beardslee says. No one suggests doing that. But, he argues, if we stopped catching wild fish in the ocean and kept hatchery salmon off their spawning grounds in the rivers, we might wind up pretty quickly with as many fish as we have now.

Neither Beardslee nor many others just says stop fishing.  He suggests doing it differently.  Wild Fish Conservancy has been pushing the – long-taboo – idea of catching salmon in fish traps, assemblages of nets supported by pilings at or near the mouths of spawning streams that can be used to precisely target individual fish runs.  Puget Sound tribes used similar structures before European-Americans showed up, and wealthy canning companies did the same from the late 19th century until the Great Depression, when they were banned by a citizens’ initiative.  Traps make sense: why go out in boats to chase salmon that will come to you?  On the other hand, they don’t lend themselves to individual entrepreneurship or the self-image that comes with spending days out on the water.

 Traps aren’t inherently better, Beardslee concedes; you have to make a point of releasing fish from certain runs. Otherwise, like any other nets, they’ll just kill everything. “[C]atching salmon closer to the place where they spawn allows greater separation of hatchery from wild and threatened from non-threatened populations,” the authors of Upstream observed.  “With live-trap terminal fishing, salmon needing protection can be released.”

A couple of years ago, Beardslee’s organization operated an experimental fish trap on the Columbia at Cathlamet.  Scientists have reported in a peer-reviewed publication that 99.5 percent of the chinook they released survived.

Wild Fish Conservancy has recently signed a contract with a First Nation on the Skeena River, near Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to build a fish trap there. The trap should be up and running by next spring. Other First Nations are interested, Beardslee says, but they haven’t yet secured grant money for the projects.

If people fished in or near the mouths of the rivers by which they lived, he suggests, they’d develop a sense of stewardship.  And they’d leave more fish for the whales.

 There is little danger that orcas, per se, will disappear from Puget Sound. As the beloved fish-eating Southern Residents get pushed further and further toward the edge of extinction, their perhaps-less-attractive mammal-eating cousins become more conspicuous. Since 2013, Giles says, more than 250 different mammal-eating killer whales have been identified here.  At stake, of course, is the continued existence of individual animals that people have long identified and tracked, plus a whole gene pool – and a distinct culture.

 Even nature hasn’t been doing them many favors lately. This summer’s rock slide on the Fraser has largely blocked the way for up to 70 percent of the fish. Canadians have helicoptered fish over the obstruction and blasted rock away, but chances are good “that’s going to decimate a huge, important run,” Giles says.

Over time, the fish may learn to cope.  Beardslee notes that they have doubtless encountered rockslides before, just as they have encountered floods, earthquakes, and eruptions.  The genetic diversity of wild salmon populations is “the treasure,” Beardslee says. It gives the fish a chance to survive climate change, and such natural traumas as landslides in the Fraser River, and enables them to fill all the available habitat niches.

And with luck, not just survive: the goal of protecting species under the Endangered Species Act is not mere survival but recovery.  We now have some pretty clear ideas of what that require. 


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