OLYMPIA, Wash. (CN) – Three dozen potential actions intended to prevent the extinction of Southern Resident killer whales have hit the desk of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, but a key member of the group behind the plan says the one action strong enough to give the whales a good chance at survival was too politically charged to make the list.
The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force handed a suite of proposed actions to Gov. Inslee on Nov. 16, including more than a dozen aimed at easing the top problem the whales face: starvation from a lack of endangered Chinook salmon. Other recommendations would diminish the onslaught of toxic chemicals flowing into the Salish Sea, where the whales live, and reduce noise from ships moving through the whales’ hunting spots that interfere with their ability to navigate and find food. Inslee will decide which of the actions to approve and which to include in the state’s 2019 budget proposal.
The task force is seen as a last-ditch effort to keep an iconic population of whales from going extinct.
“What is at stake? The Salish Sea, the salmon, the orca and ultimately the ecosystem,” task force co-chairman Les Purce said at the group’s final meeting before issuing the report.
But a prominent task force member says the one thing that would actually save the whales was too politically fraught to make the list. The task force’s own evidence shows that breaching or removing the four dams on the Lower Snake River would provide enough Chinook salmon for the whales to be well fed within three or four years. But that would have required the support of task force members on the rural side of the state who depend on the dams to irrigate their crops and regulate river flows that barge crops to market.
Ken Balcomb, senior scientist for the Center for Whale Research who has performed the Southern Resident census since it began in the 1970s, said he was “dismayed” the task force hadn’t called for the breaching or removal of the Snake River dams. Balcomb called the remaining measures “ho-hum” and said they don’t go far enough to save the whales from extinction.
The take-home, according to Balcomb, is that a real plan to get salmon around the Snake River dams “slips into a less meaningful timeframe and back into the quibbling that has gone on for decades while the salmon and Southern Resident killer whales continue to dwindle.”
Saving the 74 remaining southern resident killer whales from extinction is a complex job. There are grave shortfalls in multiple links in the whales’ food chain. Various populations of Chinook salmon – the whales’ main food source – are either threatened or endangered. And the smaller fish upon which the Chinook depend have also dropped in number, as have the plankton that those smaller fish eat.
Southern Residents have so little to eat that they depend on the fat in their bodies for energy. The chemicals stored there recirculate in their tissues and harm their endocrine systems. Two-thirds of the whales’ pregnancies have failed since 2007. None of the calves born in the last three years has survived.