Impossible Choices: The Complicated Task of Saving Both Orca and Salmon

Southern Resident killer whale eating a Chinook salmon. (Center for Whale Research)

ANACORTES, Wash. (CN) – Decades of politics and foot-dragging have stymied the recovery of threatened and endangered Chinook salmon, while an iconic population of killer whales that depends on them veered toward extinction. Now, a last-ditch effort to save the whales may also be what thwarts the recovery of Chinook.

The Southern Resident killer whales are dying. An extended family of 75 orcas living year-round in the sea surrounding the San Juan Islands near Seattle, their numbers never fully rebounded since aquariums that later became SeaWorld captured a third of them in the late 1960s.

And there are other culprits.

The Seattle Marine Aquarium (not affiliated with today’s Seattle Aquarium) trapping whales on Aug. 8, 1970, in Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove. SeaWorld later bought the Seattle Marine Aquarium. (see photo for credit)

Cargo ships and whale-watching boats zip through the Salish Sea, adding noise that interferes with the whales’ ability to locate each other and their prey. The water they live in is toxic. The Puget Sound outside Seattle is tainted with flame retardant, and PCBs and pollutants gush from nearby rivers into the sea.

The Chinook salmon they eat to live are contaminated with mercury, lead and organic compounds like PCBs. The Washington state Department of Health advises humans to limit their consumption of Chinook salmon to eight ounces per week. But Southern Residents eat dozens of the fish per day.

Not only is their food toxic, there’s also less of it than ever before. Five populations of Chinook the whales depend on are listed as threatened; a sixth is endangered. And they’re smaller, declining in size by 10 percent since the late 1970s, according to research published February in the scientific journal Fish & Fisheries.

But while the Southern Resident whales struggle to survive, similar populations of orca thrive despite many of the same pressures. Northern Resident killer whales in the waters around Vancouver, British Columbia, flourish. They eat Chinook, just like Southern Residents. But their population has more than doubled since tracking began in the 1970s – up to 309 in 2017.

Transient orca pods, which migrate between the Salish Sea and the open Pacific Ocean, eat marine mammals like seals. They now number over 500, which wildlife managers say may be close to the maximum their habitat can support. And the populations of seals and sea lions have dramatically rebounded since the 1970s – though they are just as toxic as salmon.

Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, Washington state. (Karina Brown/CNS)

Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research, says the main problem is that the Southern Residents have so little prey to eat they have to survive on their fat stores, where the toxicity concentrates.

“Transients are still doing great,” Balcomb said. “They’re cranking out babies at six percent because they have a lot of food. They don’t have to draw on their fat because they have plenty to eat.”

The problem is especially apparent, according to Balcomb, when the orcas can’t find enough salmon during pregnancy. If a pregnant whale draws from her toxic fat stores to feed her growing fetus, the offspring will likely be born with significant problems like immunosuppression akin to HIV or an underdeveloped nervous system.

Female Southern Residents used to produce about five calves in their lifetimes. Now they are lucky to have two. They routinely miscarry or deliver calves that soon die. Those that survive never develop functioning reproductive systems.

Southern Resident killer whale J-35 gave birth in July to a female calf who died 30 minutes later. For 17 days, she refused to let her dead baby drop to the sea floor, dragging it by a fin or pushing the corpse with her forehead. (Center for Whale Research, NMFS Permit #21238)

This past July, a 20-year-old Southern Resident officially known as J-35, but also called Tahlequah, gave birth to a female calf who died 30 minutes later. For 17 days, Tahlequah refused to let the dead calf drop to the sea floor, dragging it by a fin or falling way behind her pod as she pushed the corpse along with her forehead.

The problem likely began with the aquarium captures of the late 1960s, according to Mike Ford, director of the conservation biology division of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. No other population was targeted as heavily as Southern Residents. Ford said it was a kind of original insult from which the whales never recovered – from both a genetic perspective and a traumatic one.

“They [the aquariums] preferentially took out younger whales, so you can expect a wave of effects into the future from those removals,” Ford said. “It’s also possible that the stress of those events led to some long-term problems for the Southern Resident population. There is certainly evidence of that in other species.”

A SeaWorld spokesman said there is “no dispute” about what is to blame for the decline of Southern Residents – the loss of Chinook salmon.

“SeaWorld is on the front lines of the conservation efforts to protect this population of killer whales, and we continue to dedicate resources to directly address the issues impacting them,” SeaWorld spokesman Travis Claytor said in an email.

While the situation has deteriorated for decades, it is only now garnering the urgency required for political action.

In March, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee convened a task force to come up with a list of “bold actions” to prevent the increasing likelihood of extinction for the Southern Residents. The group’s final recommendations are due Nov. 16.

Speaking at the group’s Aug. 7 meeting, Inslee underscored the importance of the work to save Southern Residents, which used to be a regular sight from the parks along Puget Sound in Seattle.

“I can’t overstate the emotional connection to orca, but it is not just an emotional issue – it is a scientific one because our ability to save this species is the same ability to save our own, ultimately,” Inslee told the group.

Charged with this task is a huge cast of players with widely diverging interests that struggles to understand the science behind the whales’ decline and deliver actions that are both politically feasible and will create real change. Representatives from local, state, federal and tribal governments, environmental nonprofits, fishermen, port authorities, whale boat touring companies and hydropower operators – 45 in all – wrestle for consensus on dozens of possible actions meant to target the three main problems whales face: lack of food, toxicity and noise from boat traffic.

Adult Chinook salmon spawning in the shallow gravel beds of the Skagit River in northern Washington state. (Karina Brown/CNS)

At the group’s Aug. 28 meeting, the fourth of five scheduled, members planned to hash out their support for major actions like removing four dams along the lower Snake River and increasing the amount of water spilled over dams to improve survival of young salmon headed out to sea. Instead, members spent most of their time outlining the information they said they still needed in order to make their decisions. Group leaders said they would construct a series of informational webinars and added an additional meeting to the schedule.

Of all the difficult actions to consider, the most palatable may be one already in place but drastically reduced due to economic and scientific concerns: releasing huge numbers of hatchery fish.

Meanwhile, big questions remain on how the effort to save Southern Residents will affect long-running litigation over the government’s failure to safeguard West Coast salmon populations from the destruction caused by dams. Southern Residents depend on salmon headed from the Pacific Ocean back to where they were born in the vast network of rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest.

Salmon used to migrate year-round through Southern Resident habitat. Every few weeks there would be a new feast – a different salmon run headed from the ocean back to the precise mountain stream or river where they were born. Some of those runs went extinct when dams like the Grand Coulee in eastern Washington stopped their passage completely. Whether they allowed fish to pass or not, dams had to pay for habitat restoration and hatcheries to replace the millions of fish they killed.

Between 300 and 400 million hatchery salmon and steelhead are released on the West Coast annually. But scientists say wild salmon suffer from genetic dilution and increased competition with hatchery salmon. While wild steelhead runs are acutely damaged by the impact of the introduction of hatchery fish, the harm to wild Chinook is harder to trace. But there is evidence that reducing numbers of hatchery Chinook has helped wild Chinook rebound.

This ambiguity led the government to reduce hatchery numbers since the heyday of the 1990s. Concerns about Southern Residents could change that, since the whales now rely heavily on hatchery fish that have replaced wild salmon runs. In Puget Sound, about 80 percent of the salmon returning from the Pacific are hatchery fish.

A tray of fertilized Chinook salmon eggs at the Marblemount Fish Hatchery in Washington state. (Karina Brown/CNS)

The government appears poised to increase hatchery Chinook by about 25 million per year. In a survey of members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force compiled Aug. 23, the top three recommendations out of 60 were to increase hatchery Chinook, accelerate habitat restoration for Chinook and require small boats to stop using echo sounders.

That could clash with efforts to save salmon. Federal judges have tossed out five of the government’s plans to protect the fish. Each time, they found the government’s plan didn’t do enough to protect them from extinction.

Most recently, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon of the District of Oregon said the government must consider removing the four dams along the Snake River, which swoops through Idaho and along the Idaho-Oregon border before finally plunging into the Columbia River in eastern Washington.

Advocates tout the removal of the Elwha Dam in northeastern Washington, where it took only a few months for 4,000 Chinook to return and spawn, according to the Washington state Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Adult Chinook salmon in the fish traps at the Marblemount Fish Hatchery, Skagit River in northern Washington state. (Karina Brown/CNS)

During the public comment period at the August meeting, Palouse Indian Tribe member Jesse Nightwalker read a letter from his elders into the record. Until the government moved them to the Spokane Reservation, the Palouse lived along the Snake River in Idaho and Washington state for at least 14,000 years, Nightwalker said. And in 1953, Nightwalker said the government forced his mother and grandmother from their ancestral lands in order to make way for the four Snake River dams.

“We are requesting the dams be breached, made inoperable or taken down,” Nightwalker said. “During our period of stewardship of the territory, salmon was plenty and the orca were healthy.”

But others argue boosting hatchery output of juvenile salmon is the only way forward for both salmon and orca. And along with hatcheries comes the year-round job of rearing young fish and collecting those that return to harvest their eggs and create a new, man-made generation.

Charter boat operator Butch Smith says the government should dramatically increase production of hatchery salmon, both to help endangered killer whales and to invigorate the fishing industry.

“It’s a major step – the most important step we can take in saving the killer whales,” he said. “If we’re going to save these whales, we’ve got to get to producing fish again.”

J17, a Southern Resident killer whale who was first observed with a gunshot wound in August 1979, and still has the scar. People used to shoot the whales from boats because they were considered pests who ate too many salmon. (Center for Whale Research)

Salmon fishing is big business on the West Coast. Who gets them and when is the subject of a tangle of regulations. Commercial and sports fishermen, tribes, hydropower operators and farmers who need reservoirs to irrigate their crops all want the right to take salmon. But there is so little to go around the government has launched programs to kill sea lions and cormorants, both natural predators that take impermissible slices of the salmon pie.

Orcas also used to be killed for their love of salmon. People stood in their boats and shot them, according to government records. Some of the whales captured by aquariums had old bullet wounds. And Balcomb has photos of one Southern Resident who still swims in the Salish Sea with a bullet wound from the late 1970s.

Wildlife managers in the West have a long history of prioritizing one species over another. Now, they are navigating a new problem: multiple interdependent animals struggling to avoid extinction. In the past, programs targeted predators with abundant populations.

Today, managers face a new conundrum: whether to harm a threatened species in an effort to save an endangered one.

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