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‘Saving this apex species is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation’

How to bring southern resident killer whales back from the brink of extinction

NOAA Fisheries biologists talk about southern resident killer whales, a species that makes its home around the San Juan Islands in Washington state.
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NOAA Fisheries biologists talk about southern resident killer whales, a species that makes its home around the San Juan Islands in Washington state.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation recently announced $888,265 in grants to be used in the coming year to restore habitat for chinook salmon – the preferred food of orca whales – and to conduct research on what it will take to help the dwindling populations of both species.

The nonprofit Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group is one of the grant recipients.

“Saving this apex species is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation,” foundation Executive Director and CEO Jeff Trandahl said about the orcas in a news release. “It is only through partnerships supporting a comprehensive approach to conservation that we will be able to reverse the decline of this iconic species of the Pacific Northwest.”

The endangered southern resident orca population, which frequents the Salish Sea including areas around west Skagit County, has fallen to 76 whales this year despite being protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Meanwhile, chinook salmon are threatened in the Puget Sound and Columbia River system. The salmon accounts for about 80 percent of the whales’ diet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The state’s Puget Sound Partnership recently said the need to save both species is urgent.

The grants announced Nov. 16 will support nine habitat restoration and research projects aimed at restoring them.

Those projects include using underwater acoustics to evaluate where the orcas go along the coast, using drones to photograph and evaluate the health of the whales from above, and doing habitat restoration to support a larger number of Puget Sound chinook.

Seven of the nine projects focus on restoring chinook salmon, better understanding the whales’ diet and better understanding why they aren’t getting enough food.

By investing in projects that address salmon research and the monitoring of killer whale health and habitat restoration, we hope to help increase the killer whale population off the coast of Washington state.

Shirley Yap, general manager of the Shell Puget Sound Refinery

The Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group will receive about $97,000 to help restore Britt Slough, which is east of the Skagit River just before the river splits into the north and south forks that border Fir Island.

The group plans to restore about 8 acres of floodplain on state Department of Fish & Wildlife property to support young chinook salmon before they swim out to the Salish Sea, according to the grant announcement.

Skagit Fisheries and the Skagit Conservation District – a partner in the project – hope to secure additional funding and complete design work in time to begin ground work on the project in 2019, Skagit Fisheries Restoration Ecologist Sue Madsen said.

Skagit Fisheries previously received a grant from the foundation for a project on the upper Skagit River to increase chinook habitat.

The money for both projects was awarded through the foundation’s Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program.

The latest group of grants brings the program’s investment in chinook and orca recovery to about $2.8 million since it began in 2015.

The grant program began as a partnership between the foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc.

Shell Oil Co., which operates the Shell Puget Sound Refinery at March Point near Anacortes, joined the partnership this year, providing $250,000 toward the grant program.

“Working with this diverse group of partners to aid in the recovery of this incredible species is an honor, and we are proud to have this opportunity to help affect change,” Shirley Yap, general manager of the Shell Puget Sound Refinery, said in a news release. “By investing in projects that address salmon research and the monitoring of killer whale health and habitat restoration, we hope to help increase the killer whale population off the coast of Washington state.”

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