the film
Commentaries and editorials

Don't Let Politics
Overtake Science

by Editorial Board
Capital Press, March 30, 2023

One need not be a fisheries biologist to determine whether breaching dams
400 miles away -- as the crow flies -- would have even a minimal impact on the orcas.

Graphic: Adult Salmon returns to highest dam on the Lower Snake River (1962-2022). The more scientists find out about orcas, the more we can understand them and potentially help the populations that need it.

On the flip side, it seems the more politicians talk about orcas, the less we understand them.

Let's take a look at the "southern resident" orcas that spend much of their time in the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Washington state and British Columbia and in Puget Sound.

Some years ago, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee adopted the orcas as his cause celebre. He worried out loud that the 73 orcas in that population were not thriving and, by golly, Washingtonians have to do something to help them.

He assembled a nearly 50-member Southern Resident Task Force in 2018 to address the orca problem. One suggestion was to use hatcheries to produce more chinook salmon, the preferred food of the orcas. That only makes sense.

But among the 48 other steps proposed were:

  1. Establish a stakeholder process to discuss potential breaching or removal of the lower Snake River Dams for the benefit of southern resident orcas.

  2. Take aggressive, comprehensive and sustained action to reduce human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, with the goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
One need not be a fisheries biologist to determine whether breaching dams 400 miles away -- as the crow flies -- would have even a minimal impact on the orcas.

Similarly, disassembling Washington state's economy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would have nothing to do with helping orcas.

Clearly, the task force had other goals in mind and was using the orcas to promote them.

New research by scientists, however, has uncovered a factor that has hobbled the orcas. It doesn't offer the governor or others any new political capital, but appears to answer why the southern resident population has struggled while other populations of orcas in the region have flourished.

About 60 years ago, marine theme parks captured 45 orcas, killing 13 in the process. This reduced the southern resident population by 40%.

The result was the genetic diversity of the orcas was drastically reduced.

The new study corroborated a 2018 study that found inbreeding to be a major problem. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration geneticists found that 90% of the southern resident orcas are inbred. Only two males had fathered most of the calves born to the population.

Any livestock producer can tell you what that means. The animals will not reproduce as efficiently, have higher mortality rates and will not be as healthy and more susceptible to illness and other problems such as stillbirth.

This information appears to explain a lot about the southern resident population. It's not a matter of politically motivated task forces and reports; it's a matter of science that hopefully can be used to make headway toward helping the orcas.

In the future, we should not allow politics to overtake science.

Related Pages:
Amid a Battle Over Snake River Dams, a Look at How the Salmon are Doing by Matthew Weaver, Capital Press, 5/18/23

Editorial Board
Don't Let Politics Overtake Science
Capital Press, March 30, 2023

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