Salmon recovery necessary to aid endangered resident orcas

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 5, 2013 

No fish, no blackfish.

It's an old saying here among fishermen in the Pacific Northwest, dating back to the legends of the first people in the region, who saw the orcas that plied these waters not as animals but as "The Killer Whale People," souls who lived in villages beneath the sea, who would put on their orca costumes and come to the surface, protecting humans from danger and, most important of all, bringing us salmon to eat.

Today science tells us that killer whales don't bring in the salmon; the salmon bring in the killer whales. And without healthy salmon runs in the sound and straits, particularly their preferred diet of Chinook salmon, we will no longer have orcas. Fish seems to be job No. 1 for any recovery plan. And yet, after a two-year study, an esteemed independent science panel convened by NOAA Fisheries and Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada reported last year that there were "doubts about the cause-and-effect relationship between salmon abundance and killer whale vital rates."

With all due respect to these great minds and devoted public servants, the 31 member-operators of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and some of the top orca scientists in the world disagree. Our federal agencies need to move now to restore salmon runs as a top priority for orca recovery.

On the U.S. side, NOAA has yet to curb the decline of the Southern Resident orcas, which now number 80 members, their lowest count in decades. And, perhaps the most important source of prey for the orcas, the Fraser River Chinook runs, reached record lows this year - not surprisingly, researchers and whale watch crews reported a record low in sightings of Southern Resident orcas.

"The math is simple and clear. What are we waiting for?" asks Anna Hall, who holds a doctorate and is science advisor for Pacific Whale Watch Association. "The salmon are critical to the survival of coastal ecosystems, and fundamental to the health and survival of resident killer whales - from what we know of their diet, the salmon are the No. 1 important component. Salmon runs were down this past summer, and there were significant changes in the whales' distribution. It is probable that there was a relationship. The importance of working to successfully restore salmon populations cannot be understated. It is time for action."

Some orca scientists are frustrated by what they feel is a backpedaling now on the part of NOAA Fisheries on the correlation between Chinook and orcas - that ancient wisdom.

"This year, the whales spent far less time in our interior marine waters than they have in recent decades, and we see from test fisheries that the Chinook numbers returning to the Fraser River system were at a record low," explained Ken Balcomb, executive director and principal investigator for The Center for Research and a science advisor to the whale watch association. "I wonder if these same federal scientists now would have doubts that the alarming decrease of an important identified food resource in these waters had any cause-and-effect relationship with Southern Resident killer whale decrease in occurrence."

The Pacific Whale Watch Association has sent a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper urging the government to finally adopt a marine mammal regulatory amendment to protect the Southern Resident orcas that has been more than 10 years in the making. In that amendment are some of the strongest federal actions yet proposed by the Canadian government to address depleted salmon runs in B.C. waters.

When it comes to salmon habitat, we know that if we build it, they will come. In Washington, we finally pushed through the Nisqually Delta Restoration project, ripping out the culverts, giving the delta back to the sound, bringing the salmon back there. And there's perhaps the most important salmon restoration project ever, the removal of the Elwha Dams. We're still years away from completely restoring that river system, but last month it was reported that the largest run of Chinook in decades have returned to the Elwha River. They counted 1,741 adult Chinook and 763 reds, about 75 percent of those spotted upstream of the old dam site. The salmon are coming back, and that's a candy store for resident orcas.

In Ken Balcomb's 36 years studying this orca population, he's never seen anything like this. If the Southern Resident orcas were on a road to extinction when they were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, they now seem to be in the fast lane.

"They're showing no sign of recovery since being listed," explains Balcomb. "And with their occurrence in these waters now significantly diminished, my understanding of logic would suggest that we had better treat these facts as a wake-up call: the Southern Resident killer whales are perilously close to the point of no return, either as a viable population or as beloved neighbors."

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Drew Schmidt owns San Juan Cruises in Bellingham and Michael Harris is executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. For information about the organization, go online to pacificwhalewatchassociation.org.

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