Port of Port Townsend aims to develop joint request to help orcas – PDN

Port Commissioners across the North Sound, led by our three Jefferson County Commissioners, have decided to weigh in to the Governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force. But their comments make one wonder where is the science that comes into  their personal opinions and assumptions on what’s needed.

I have tracked the decline of the Orcas in this blog for over 10 years. I have never heard scientists arguing on the points that Commissioner and whale watch boat captain Pete Hanke, was quoted on in The PDN. Let’s look at his comment.

“Turn the hatcheries on, go full bore, get a lot of fish in the water,”he aid. “Why not? It’s not going to hurt anything. The idea of keeping this native thing going is short-sighted. There’s a lot of science out there that questions whether the [southern resident orcas] will survive at any rate.” Hanke also said that he believes the Fraser River to be of the most polluted rivers in the region. The salmon coming out of the river are quite high in PCBs and contribute a lot of damage to the [southern resident orcas],” Hanke said. “So saying we want to get more fish out of the Fraser River doesn’t really solve the problem.

For a man who is in charge of helping determine the effective use of tax dollars in a local port, it’s a remarkably odd statement. The Port has itself wrapped around the axle on finding the funds to replace an aging breakwater, Pete has not shown any great ideas to the community about how this is going to get funded, and the Port’s leader, Sam Gibbony just resigned, with no explanation. So what about Pete’s comments?

Hatcheries already are doing their job for decades and haven’t been contributing near enough. We spent about $3M last year with virtually no science to show that it’s been of enormous help. There is also no science saying that by miraculously expanding hatchery output (even if we could do it quickly) that we will save the Orca.

According to the State of Washington Fish and Wildlife web site “During the 2018 legislative session, WDFW and other state agencies were provided about $3 million to support new and ongoing orca recovery efforts, such as reducing the presence of toxic contaminants in Puget Sound, and increasing hatchery production of Chinook salmon and other prey species.”https://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/orca/

Reducing toxins in the water takes decades to see significant results. Pete’s comment that the “salmon coming out of the Fraser are quite high in PCBs…” is the first I’ve heard of this issue. Rather than saying that the US should be doing something, he pushes the problem to Canada, where we have little or no influence. However, a 2018 study from the WA Dept of Fish & Wildlife pointed out that , contrary to Pete’s assumption, that 98% of PCBs are accumulated by the fish in salt water, not fresh water, such as the Duwamish or Frasier. “The amount of PCBs in adult salmon that is acquired in the freshwater environment, including hatcheries, varies from approximately 1% in undeveloped rivers to 4% in developed river where out-migrating juvenile fish acquire more PCBs. Hatchery feed is estimated to contribute a maximum of 1% of the PCBs measured in adult Chinook from Puget Sound that originated in hatcheries.” Read the whole report on PCBs in salmon here:

However, the science does not support the notion that the hatcheries  are adding significantly to the food the Orca eat, which scat samples from scientists show to be Chinook from the Frasier and Columbia rivers, which find their way to the Salish Sea. The most effective way to quickly raise the number of fish available for the Orca, would be to stop*all* fishing in the Strait and the Sound, as the Canadians did on June 1 in the Gulf Islands. Perhaps a moratorium on catching any Chinook for ten years would be a good start. I’ve heard this thought supported by any number of old time fishermen. Would the Tribes be on board? Not likely from the tribal members I’ve heard quoted in the news.

No word is mentioned as to whether the Port supports breaching the lower Snake River dams, which many scientists believe will add significant amounts of salmon into the system quickly. Want to know why some scientists are supporting doing this? Read the information at this web site to start. http://www.wildsalmon.org/facts-and-information/why-remove-the-4-lower-snake-river-dams.html

It states:

An extensive modeling effort completed in 2000 analyzed of the causes of mortality for Snake River salmon. The model demonstrated that the four lower Snake River dams were the most significant factor preventing recovery. The cumulative effect of eight dams on the lower Columbia and lower Snake Rivers is too much for salmon survival and if the four dams on the lower Snake were removed (cutting the total number of dams Snake River stocks face in half), these salmon can rebound to healthy levels.

More recent studies also show that populations of other Columbia Basin salmon that migrate through four or less dams and reservoirs, such as those from the Yakima and John Day rivers are performing significantly better than those from the Snake river. Those populations, like the Snake, also encounter mortality as a result of habitat destruction, harvest, hatcheries, predators and ocean conditions, but they are not imperiled. The difference lies in the number of mainstem dams they encounter. A key benefit for Snake River populations is the amount of high quality habitat they have that is not found in the other Columbia basins.

One of the main people doing scientific research into saving the Orca is Ken Balcomb. He recently addressed the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) Recovery and Task Force and posted to Facebook a message that included the following statement:

“…The human population and its appetites are growing too fast in the region to keep up with the clean-up. My analysis of the potential food resources for the SRKW led me to the Snake/Columbia salmon stocks as the only saving possibility within US and State of Washington jurisdiction…The basic biology and ecology of these amazing animals is fascinating, and their habits belie your  (Senator Kevin Ranker’s) hypothesis that a vessel regulatory approach will “save these incredible creatures.”

They will travel to wherever the food is most available, and by their absence they are illustrating that the food is not sufficiently available in San Juan County anymore. Nor in the Salish Sea. We all remember the heyday of fishing and the weeks-on-end of superpods, but those days are over throughout their foraging range.”

His web site states:

The larger environmental question reflected in the J35 story is that both the USA and Canada MUST redouble efforts to restore wild (emphasis mine) salmon (particularly Chinook) throughout Washington State and British Columbia for a food supply for the SRKW in this region.

On June 1st the Canadian government took drastic action.

“…the Government of Canada is imposing fishery management measures to reduce the total harvest for Chinook salmon by 25-35 percent. These measures include closures that will help increase the availability of this critical food source for Southern Resident killer whales.

The closures will take place in three key foraging (feeding) areas: Strait of Juan de Fuca, Gulf Islands and the mouth of the Fraser River.

These measures will be implemented for the 2018 salmon fishing season, with monitoring to assess the effectiveness of the closures.”

Ken believes we have only about five more years of breeding before the population is unable to support itself going forward. A ban for 5 to 10 years on all take of Chinook can immediately start to rectify the problem.


Another area of concern is our ongoing destruction of the shorelines where forage fish, another favorite food of salmon, spawn. Sound Action (I am Board President of Sound Action)  has stated,

In Washington State, our primary law governing nearshore habitat protection is called the Hydraulic Code, and any in-water development work requires a permit called an HPA which is under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Unfortunately, there are significant gaps in the WDFW administration of the law with the department approving every permit, regardless of scale or impact. Similarly, issued permits are commonly missing important environmental regulations developed to protect fish life and habitat.

Multiple parties, including environmental groups, public agency employees and the Northwest Treaty Tribes have all raised concerns related to habitat loss as a result of WDFW administration of the HPA permit program. Even WDFW has documented this issue with internal program evaluation finding only a small portion of HPAs reviewed were appropriately protecting important ecosystem functions.

This means that nearshore habitat is lost every day with each new dock, bulkhead, marina, dredging operation or export facility permit issued without appropriate environmental regulations. Eelgrass beds that were once vast ribbons of green are shaded out until they’re gone. Forage fish spawning grounds are decimated. Important sedimentation processes that nourish beaches and give them life are choked off.

So just properly implementing our existing regulations would also have an impact.

Outside the jurisdiction of these permits is the ongoing conversion of shoreline habitat to commercial geoduck farms. Thousands of acres have been converted to mono-culture permanent farms for Chinese buyers since 2000.  Over 98% of the harvest is sent there. No one in government has seriously talked about when enough is enough. The question to be asked is, “When will say that we have reached carrying capacity for converting our wild shorelines to industrial geoduck farms? How much is enough?”  

I have not even addressed the issue of pollution runoff from our roads. To fix that  known problem (recent scientific studies at the UW have shown 100% death rates on salmon exposed to rain runoff from roads like 520), would take far more money and time than the Orca have left. At least we can start that though sooner than later.

Are we serious about making the enormously unpopular and painful changes we need to save the Orca? While I have no doubt that Commissioner Hanke, who makes his living running a whale watch business is serious about wanting to save the Orca, jumping to poorly considered assumptions is just condemning them to an even faster end.


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