Task Force to Save Orcas
by Mandi Johnson
With just 75 Southern resident orcas remaining, a group is taking action to save this endangered species.
Hundreds of people gathered in the convention center of Swinomish Casino and Lodge on Tuesday, Aug. 28 for the fourth meeting of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.
"The world is out of balance and we've got to move or we'll perish. ... Our world is out of balance. Our ocean isn't healthy. We need to work together on this," said Makah Tribe representative Chad Bowechop.
Orcas were listed as an endangered species in Washington state in 2004, and nationally in 2005. The population of Southern resident killer whales has declined from 98 in 1995 to 75 in 2018 -- the lowest it has been in 30 years.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed Executive Order 18-02 on March 14, which designated state agencies to take immediate action to benefit Southern resident killer whales and established the task force to suggest long-term actions for orca recovery and sustainability. The group is comprised of scientists, politicians from various levels of governance, members of the private sector and nonprofits as well as state agencies and area tribes.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and other state agencies were provided approximately $3 million to begin new and support ongoing orca recovery efforts by the legislature in 2018. Such endeavors include reducing contaminants in Puget Sound, increasing Chinook salmon hatchery production and limiting the speed of vessels through known orca habitats. Chinook salmon, whose population is declining, is the Southern residents' main food source.
The task force will prepare a draft for a comprehensive report, including recommendations for recovering the Southern resident population, by Oct. 1. A final report, due to the governor by Nov. 1, will address the major threats to Southern residents, including contaminants, vessel noise and traffic and food availability and suggest actions needed to save the Southern residents. A follow-up report reflecting the success or failure of the proposals, including what items need to be revised and added, will be completed by Oct. 1, 2019.
"If we ask for everything, we get nothing," Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said about the task force's suggestions. "There's reality and politics and never should the two mix."
The 45-person group, along with its two co-chairpersons, separated into smaller groups during the meeting to discuss three of the topics identified as the most important to orca recovery in a survey of task force members: hydropower, vessels and predation. The San Juan Island community was represented by Ranker, County Councilmember Jamie Stephens and Joe Gaydos, SeaDoc Society science director.
The hydropower discussion focused primarily on the removal of the lower four Snake River dams that are thought to be negatively impacting salmon spawning and reproduction -- a controversial topic discussed for years. It was equally controversial among task force members.
"This is not something that's going to bring back Chinook this year," Gaydos said. "It's not our job right now to fight. ... Our job is to make a clear-cut decision."
Ranker said that just like every other task force he's been on, they'll produce a "beautiful book but it'll get put on a shelf and never looked at," if they don't go bold in their suggestions. He added that the task force should prioritize 10 topics and have a year-two report card on how well the agencies responded to the suggestions.
"I think this task force, before November, needs to have some recommendation on dams," Ranker said. "I want to have this discussion. We as a task force need to come up with a recommendation on Snake River dams, period. ... We cannot walk away from this. Are these the fish that are going to feed them when they're starving? These are animals that are starving."
The impact of small vessels (65-feet and smaller) was voted one of the highest priorities by the task force. They considered suggesting permits for recreation and commercial craft in orca feeding areas and requiring fish finding sonars to be set at a frequency outside of that which orcas use to communicate.
Finally, predation by other marine mammals was addressed. Options for limiting predator competition by removing artificial seal haul-outs to culling seals and sea lions were options presented to the task force.
Opinions of representatives around the room varied widely on the prospect of thinning the marine mammal herd to help the orcas. Butch Smith of Ilwaco Charters referenced the current sea lion reduction efforts at Bonneville Dam along the Columbia River as being enough proof that culling works. Others said we needed more studies before jumping to that option.
"We can science this thing to death. ... I don't understand the statement that we need a lot more science," Smith said. "I think the time is now to either go to the bathroom or get off the pot."
With no current data on the seal and sea lion population in Puget Sound, Gaydos did not agree with Smith's evaluation and said more study is needed.
"You need to do your homework if you're going to make this decision," he said. "I don't think we have enough to move forward ... from the science side."
Overall, Laura Blackmore of Puget Sound Partnership said that the task force should suggest that the governor fully fund and support agencies to "do the right thing" to save the whales.
Up next for the task force will be topic-specific webinars and one final meeting on Oct. 18 in Lacey, Washington to review the draft suggestions and to make final recommendations.
More than 150 members of the public and regional science community signed up to make comments during the meeting. However, with limited time, not everyone was able to speak.
Overall, the message from the audience was consistent. The task force agreed that committees and agencies need to work together to utilize as much scientific research as possible. Several pleaded for the removal of the Snake River dams and others asked for reducing fisheries, but all were in support of saving the orcas and restoring their numbers.
"More hatchery production is not going to save these whales," said Jim Youngren, owner of Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery on Orcas and founder of Long Live the Kings. "We've kicked the can down the road for years and now we have to act. ... It's the bottom of the ninth inning and we're behind."
Many tribal members stated throughout the day that the orcas are relatives to humanity and that their suffering is humanity's suffering.
"If we allow our relative to go extinct their blood is on our hands," said Jesse Nightwalker, a member of the Palouse tribe of eastern Washington. "The loss of orca is the loss of mankind. ... We can no longer afford doing the wrong thing."
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