Plants taking root in a nursery northeast of Burlington could help save the region’s endangered southern resident killer whales.
The plants will be used for salmon habitat projects throughout the Skagit River watershed, providing the fish with shade and a place to hide, as well as to attract bugs the fish can eat. The hope is that the plants will help increase the salmon population and thereby provide more food for the orcas.
“Saving whales starts in the trees, is kind of the way we look at it. What we do on land along our rivers and streams does make a really big impact for killer whales,” said Whitney Neugebauer, director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Whale Scout.
The organization brought a group of volunteers to the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group’s native plant nursery Saturday to help install a new watering system.
The system will be used to help native plants including red alder, Douglas fir and salmonberry get their start.
We try to restore the land inland where salmon are endangered in order to help save the orcas.
Whitney Neugebauer, director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Whale Scout
Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group Outreach Coordinator Lucy DeGrace said the watering system will be automatic and keep the plants’ roots hydrated.
“There is this intricate web in the food web where everything is connected to everything else,” DeGrace said. “Even though the volunteers won’t be seeing salmon, they are going to be helping with plants that will be used to benefit salmon habitat all over the watershed.”
Neugebauer said the project was appealing to the group because of the Skagit River’s importance in providing salmon for orcas and the work Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group does to support salmon.
“That’s exactly what our organization does. We try to restore the land inland where salmon are endangered in order to help save the orcas,” she said.
The iconic southern resident orcas that live in the Salish Sea and were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2005 and are also recognized as endangered by Washington state.
Despite federal and state protections, the population has continued to decline and is now at 78 whales, according to the Center for Whale Research.
A primary concern for the whales is that they are not getting enough to eat. They rely heavily on the chinook salmon of the region, which are listed as threatened, meaning that salmon species is at risk of becoming endangered.
“It’s really clear that saving salmon is essential for saving whales,” Neugebauer said.
Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group Executive Director Alison Studley said the local nonprofit’s work can help make that happen.
“Most of the projects we do in the Skagit watershed are focused on chinook salmon … and it just so happens that chinook salmon make up 80 percent of the southern resident orca whales’ diet,” she said. “Out of all the salmon they could eat, they prefer the chinook. So by increasing habitat in the watershed it is increasing prey availability for the orcas.”