Orcas Need Chinook Salmon
by Joel Connelly
The southern resident orca population, beloved by ferry and tour boat passengers, is in a decline that can be reversed only if its endangered food source -- Chinook salmon -- is put on a path to recovery.
"The spawning population sizes of Chinook salmon are dangerously below federal recovery goals and are not improving," the Puget Sound Partnership said this week in a somewhat gloomy annual report.
The PSP had hoped the southern resident population would rise to 95 by 2020, from 89 of the marine mammals in 2014. Instead, it is 76, the lowest number in 30 years.
The causes discussed are multi-fold. One is declining biomass of Pacific herring, on which Chinook salmon feed. Another is the pressure of 1,000 people moving into the Puget Sound basin each week. "Toxic chemicals are concentrating in the water and entering the food chain," the PSP argued.
The southern resident orcas have, curiously, never taken to the still-abundant sockeye salmon populations that return to spawn in British Columbia's Fraser River.
Puget Sound has seen some habitat recovery. A once-great Chinook salmon stream, the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula, is experiencing recovery now that two old, salmon-destroying dams have been removed.
A coalition of 25 Northwest sport and conservation groups on Thursday called on Gov. Jay Inslee to support and enhance another major food source for the southern resident orcas, the Chinook salmon runs of the Columbia-Snake River system.
They wrote Inslee asking him to direct more spill over Columbia and Snake River dams, the so-called spring "fish flush" that speeds juvenile salmon on their migration to the Pacific Ocean.
"Spill keeps migrating juvenile salmon safer by sending water over federal dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers rather than through the powerhouses," said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association.
Dam operators and federal agencies have spent $10 billion in the last three decades, but not one of the Columbia River basin's 13 populations protected under the Endangered Species Act has recovered.
Federal judges have rejected five separate plans by the National Marine Fisheries Service and other agencies as inadequate to restoring Columbia and Snake River runs.
The state of Oregon has strongly backed recreational, commercial and tribal fisheries interests. Washington, with far more industry, agriculture and power production, has been far less supportive despite its "green" governors.
"Salmon returns to the Columbia basin reflect a new downward trajectory that fisheries experts predict is likely to continue for the foreseeable future without new and meaningful action to stop and reverse," the 25 groups told Inslee.
Why is this important?
"Washington state's wild salmon and steelhead play a defining role for our identity, culture, economy and ecology."
The Orcas are Starving by Daivd Neiwert, Crosscut, 6/24/16
Southern Resident Orcas Too Magnificent to Lose by Giulia Good Stefani, Switchboard, 9/2/15
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