Court Recommends Halting Alaska’s Unsustainable Harvest to Protect Wild Chinook and Southern Resident Killer Whales

Yesterday, The federal court in Seattle issued a landmark decision. The outcome of this is still to be determined. But it likely means an end to Chinook harvest in Alaska. NOAA has been losing in court due to their lack of rigorous science behind their decisions. This lawsuit was brought by the Wild Fish Conservancy, one of the most effective environmental organizations in the Pacific Northwest. If you want to support their work, it’s a good time to donate.

More to come on this. 

December 16, 2022— In a massive international and coast-wide decision for wild Chinook and Southern Resident killer whale recovery, Seattle’s federal Court issued a landmark opinion on Tuesday that recommends terminating unsustainable commercial salmon harvest that has persisted for decades until new environmental reviews of those fisheries occur. Overfishing was found in a previous ruling to illegally harm the recovery of both endangered Southern Resident killer whales and wild Chinook salmon across the Pacific Northwest.


On Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michelle Peterson issued a report and recommendation on Wild Fish Conservancy’s lawsuit, agreeing that halting the summer and winter seasons of the Southeast Alaska Chinook troll fishery is the most appropriate remedy. Simultaneously, the judge found the federal government’s inadequate biological opinion should be remanded back to NOAA in order for the agency to address violations of environmental law.


In August, U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones issued a stunning summary judgment based on a previous report and recommendation by Magistrate Peterson confirming that NOAA violated the law by improperly relying on undeveloped and uncertain future mitigation to offset ongoing overfishing authorized by NOAA.


In their most recent analysis of this fishery’s impact on threatened and endangered species, NOAA admits that over the last decade and continuing today, Chinook harvest is occurring at levels that are unsustainable for the long-term survival and reproductive success of both threatened wild Chinook populations and endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The overharvest of the whales’ prey has been ongoing for decades.


“The benefits to wild Chinook and Southern Resident killer whale recovery from the Court’s action cannot be overstated,” says Emma Helverson, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “If adopted by the District Judge, this recommendation will result in the first scientifically-proven recovery action in the Pacific Northwest to immediately provide Chinook for starving killer whales. The decision will also recover and restore the larger and more diverse life histories of wild Chinook these whales evolved to eat, which are fundamental for rebuilding both populations.”


While these Chinook are harvested in Southeast Alaska marine waters and currently certified by major U.S. seafood certifiers as ‘sustainable wild caught Alaskan Chinook’, approximately 97% of all Chinook harvested in the Southeast Alaska troll fishery actually originate from rivers throughout British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. Currently, these Chinook are harvested prematurely, before they can migrate back into southern waters where the Southern Resident killer whales encounter them. In 2021, the fishery of concern harvested approximately 150,000 Chinook, many of which were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
For the first time in decades, Magistrate Peterson’s recommendation to terminate this fishery would finally allow these Chinook to migrate back down the coast and pass through the Southern Resident killer whales’ key foraging areas. Similarly, this action would support the coastwide recovery of wild Chinook stocks by allowing far more wild Chinook to return and spawn in rivers in B.C., Washington, and Oregon.


“I want to emphasize that Alaskan fishers are not to blame for NOAA’s chronic mismanagement of this fishery, and we are sympathetic to the burden this decision may pose on Southeast Alaskan communities,” says Emma Helverson, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “However, it’s critical to also acknowledge that for decades this fishery has harvested majority non-Alaskan Chinook at unsustainable levels with cascading and coastwide consequences for fishing communities throughout British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington. In addition to the unparalleled benefits to killer whale and Chinook recovery, the Court’s decision will restore more control to communities over the recovery of their local Chinook salmon populations, particularly tribal people and First Nations.”


Southern Resident killer whales were listed as Endangered in 2005. Currently, there are only 73 individuals in the population, an alarming decrease from nearly 100 only 25-years ago. Reduced prey availability, specifically large and abundant Chinook, has been identified by killer whale experts and NOAA as the primary cause of their decline.


“With less fishing in Alaskan waters, more Chinook can return to spawn in their home rivers in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon,” said Dr. Deborah Giles, Science and Research Director at Wild Orca. “An increase in larger, mature fish is essential—not just for the whales— but for the survival of these imperiled Chinook populations, whose future also hangs in the balance. A recovery for Chinook benefits all fishers, whales, and humans alike.”


“Despite the clear evidence, for too long government agencies, certifiers, and the media have been unwilling to acknowledge and address the unsustainable salmon harvest management in this fishery and others that is harming the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales and the wild Chinook they depend on,” says Helverson. “The Court’s finding is playing an important role in bringing science and policy closer together for the benefit of wild salmon, killer whales, and coastal communities.”


In the coming months, the Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendation and any objections from the defendants will be considered by the District Judge presiding over the case for a final ruling.
### 

How much of orca decline is in their DNA? – Salish Current

Interesting new study out..

A fully sequenced SRKW genome might also give scientists a look at the genetic variations and immune system genes that are important for the whales’ survival, and offer a better understanding of the population’s history and size prior to European colonization, Ford added. The information could also verify current pedigrees and aid scientists in comparing Southern Residents with Northern Residents and other similar populations that are thriving, to determine what factors are setting them apart.

How much of orca decline is in their DNA? – Salish Current (salish-current.org)

Port Townsend City Council recognizes rights of whales in WA

On Monday night, the Port Townsend mayor and city council took the step to declare that the Southern Resident Orcas have inherent rights. Port Townsend is the first county in Washington State to take this step, in a growing movement known as the Rights of Nature. The “Rights of Nature” framework is the recognition that Nature is a living being and rights-bearing entity. Rights recognition takes Nature out of the realm of property.

Mayor David Faber, Patrick Johnson of QUUF and members of the North Olympic Orca Pod

Patrick Johnson of the Green Sanctuary Environmental Action Team from Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship read the following:

On behalf of Legal Rights for the Salish Sea, Earth Law Center, and our friends and supporters at the Green Sanctuary Environmental Action Team from Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and the North Olympic Orca Pod, we’d like to extend our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Mayor Faber and the members of the Port Townsend City Council for supporting this proclamation recognizing the inherent rights of the Southern Resident Orcas. We have been asking our decision makers to take BOLD action to save these unique and critically endangered orcas, and tonight YOU have done that! Your leadership and compassion for Nature will be a model for other city/county councils to follow. This is historic! 

Central to a “Rights of Nature” framework is the recognition that Nature is a living being and rights-bearing entity. Rights recognition takes Nature out of the realm of property. It reflects an inseparable human-Nature relationship rooted in mutual enhancement and holism rather than dominion, subjugation, and exploitation. Rights of Nature, therefore, offers a framework in line with natural law and science, allowing us to properly respect and value Nature (intrinsic values) as decision making occurs. Over twenty countries already embrace Rights of Nature concepts at some level of government.

In 2018, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (comprised of American Indians/ Alaska Natives and tribes in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, Northern California, and Alaska) passed Resolution #18-32 recognizing a sacred obligation to the Southern Resident Orcas, “our relatives under the waves.” The Resolution explains that the sacred obligation “to ensure all our relations are treated in a dignified manner that reflects tribal cultural values that have been passed down for countless generations” is to be understood in the context of “an inherent right and a treaty right, and in terms of indigenous ways of knowing the natural law” as embodied in their relationship to the Southern Residents. 

At a more fundamental level, recognizing the Southern Residents’ inherent rights shows that we as a society value them as living beings. It shows that when we say we want to prevent their extinction, we mean it. This will undoubtedly require changes in the way we do business; opening space for innovations so that we can have a future with clean rivers, ocean and seas, and healthy habitats for humans, animals and plants alike. 

We would not be here without the pioneering work and commitment to Ocean Rights by Michelle Bender and Elizabeth Dunne at the Earth Law Center. Many thanks to our friends at the Center for Whale Research, especially Ken Balcomb; Dr. Debra Giles at Wild Orca; and Howard Garrett, Susan Berta and Cindy Hansen, and everyone at the Orca Network. 

The following is the proclamation of the city of Port Townsend:

Press Release from the Earth Law Center

Port Townsend, WA (December 6th, 2022)—Yesterday evening, Port Townsend’s Mayor David J. Faber signed a Proclamation describing the City of Port Townsend’s support for action by local, state, federal and tribal governments that secure and effectuate the rights of the Southern Resident Orcas.

The Southern Resident Orcas (“the Orcas) are culturally, spiritually, and economically important to the people of Washington State and the world. However, despite federal legal protections for nearly two decades, the population continues to decline and is critically endangered, with only 73 individuals left in the wild.

The Proclamation states that the Southern Resident Orcas possess the inherent rights to: “life, autonomy, culture, free and safe passage, adequate food supply from naturally occurring sources, and freedom from conditions causing physical, emotional, or mental harm, including a habitat degraded by noise, pollution and contamination.”

Kriss Kevorkian of Legal Rights for the Salish Sea (LRSS), with the help of Patrick Johnson, of the Green Sanctuary Environmental Action Team from Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, introduced the idea of the Proclamation. “We are so grateful to the Mayor and City Council of Port Townsend for taking bold action to save these unique and critically endangered Orcas.” says Kriss Kevorkian, founder of LRSS.

Legal Rights for the Salish Sea partnered with Earth Law Center (ELC) in 2018 and are working to educate local communities on a new legal tool to protect Nature and communities – Rights of Nature. Together, they are leading a campaign to gain support for recognizing the rights of the Orcas at the local and Washington State level, and to take immediate actions to protect and restore the Orcas’ rights by addressing their main threats to survival.  “Recognizing the Southern Residents’ legal rights means that we must consider their wellbeing and needs in addition to human interests in decision making, and that they will have a voice in a variety of forums, including courts. Through their human guardians acting on their behalf and in their best interests, the Orcas will be able to express what they need to exist, thrive, and evolve,” explained Elizabeth Dunne, ELC’s Director of Legal Advocacy. “When structures such as the lower Snake River dams interfere with the Southern Residents’ ability to obtain prey (salmon) crucial for their survival, then to realize their rights we must find solutions to remedy the problem,” said Dunne. 

Legal rights for species and their habitats is not new. Hundreds of Rights of Nature laws exist in approximately 30 countries. Both San Francisco and Malibu passed resolutions protecting the rights of whales and dolphins in their coastal waters in 2014; New Zealand’s Government legally recognizes animals as ‘sentient’ beings; the Uttarakhand High Court of India ruled that the entire animal kingdom are legal entities with rights; and the United Kingdom now recognizes lobsters, crabs, and octopus as sentient beings.

Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network, supports this effort because he sees recognizing the Southern Residents’ inherent rights as “essential to the orcas’ survival and well-being. Without this recognition, people will continue to put economic and self-interest above the Southern Residents’ very survival.”

“Over the past few years, we have continued to see the population decline, and actions to recover the population have been slow and piecemeal. Business as usual is not working” says Michelle Bender. “We thank the leadership of Port Townsend and hope more local communities support a call for policies that give the Orcas, and all Nature, a voice in decision making and a seat at the table.”

This effort is also supported by an online change.org petition and declaration of understanding, of which over 10 organizations have signed onto.

Earth Law Center created a toolkit to help advocates introduce a resolution to their local communities, share the campaign on social media and other helpful talking points. You can take action and view the toolkit here.

#         #         #

Earth Law Center (www.earthlawcenter.org) works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. ELC partners with frontline indigenous people, communities and organizations to challenge the overarching legal and economic systems that reward environmental harm, and advance governance systems that maximize social and ecological well-being.

Legal Rights for the Salish Sea (LRSS- http://legalrightsforthesalishsea.org/) is a local community group based in Gig Harbor, WA, founded by Dr. Kriss Kevorkian, educating people to recognize the inherent rights of the Southern Resident Orcas. Under our current legal system humans and corporations have legal standing but animals and ecosystems don’t. We believe that animals and ecosystems should also have legal rights, not just protections that can be changed by different administrations.

Four years after Tahlequah’s journey, the legal and ethical debates over orca protection continue to evolve

Salish Sea Currents looks back and forward on the game changing plight of Tahlequah, the mother who lost her young orca.

It has been four summers since a mother orca’s dramatic vigil brought worldwide attention to the plight of Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales. A recent gathering of legal experts, conservationists, and academic scholars looked at how perceptions of the whales have changed since then and whether laws and policies should reflect new thinking about ethical responsibilities to orcas and other animals. Sarah DeWeerdt reports. (Salish Sea Currents)

Salish Sea Currents

J-Pod whales spotted in Salish Sea – Times Colonist

Good news!


All 25 members of J-Pod have returned to the Salish Sea, including the newest member, born in late February. The pod of endangered southern resident killer whales appeared just off Pender Island on Tuesday and has been hunting for chinook salmon around Haro Strait, the U.S. San Juan Islands, Active Pass and the Strait of Georgia toward the Fraser River. Scientist Monika Wieland-Shields of the Orca Behavior Institute said it’s only the second time in the past five years that J-Pod has appeared in the Salish Sea in May. That’s a good sign, she said, and the fact the pod seems to be sticking around indicates there is chinook salmon for the whales to feed on. Darron Kloster reports. (Times Colonist)

https://www.timescolonist.com/local-news/j-pod-back-in-salish-sea-with-healthy-calf-5412859

Washington launches program to cut underwater noise in Puget Sound – Crosscut

This effort, based on successful efforts in British Columbia a few years ago, seems to be better funded and Maritime Blue, the non-profit behind it, did their homework in working with the legislature. Controversy over a lack of communications with existing groups doing similar work may ease with the new Program Director having uncloaked the program. At least I hope so. The last thing we need is non-profits doing the exact same work with no communication between them. The Orca Network has been doing a great job for many years. No reason to re-invent the wheel on this issue. Maybe crafting a better wheel will be a way forward. Odd to see some criticism by Fred Felleman in this article, as Fred is a board member of the very organization that he is criticizing. However, here is the goal of the new program:

To protect endangered orcas in Washington state waters, a new collaborative program called Quiet Sound is preparing to launch several voluntary initiatives in the new year that are aimed at cutting underwater noise from large ships. Aronson directs Quiet Sound via the nonprofit Washington Maritime Blue, and she said the new measures range from piloting a potential seasonal slowdown zone for commercial vessels to using app-based technology to notify ship operators of nearby orca sightings in real time.

https://crosscut.com/environment/2021/12/washington-launches-program-cut-underwater-noise-puget-sound

Maritime Blue has been a collaboration of a number of very influential representatives of various governmental agencies, Tribes, educational organizations, non-profits and others.

According to their website:

Washington Maritime Blue is committed to the development of maritime business, technology, and practices that promote a sustainable future contributing to economic growth, ecological health, and thriving communities.

Maritime Blue web site

Conservation Groups Challenge Washington’s Artificial “Fix” to  Southern Resident Killer Whale and Salmon Recovery 

This in from the Wild Fish Conservancy. After trying to move the needle with the WDF&W they have decided that the courts need to get involved. The State should not be allowed to ignore the very laws that it imposes on everyone that lives here, simply to try scientifically dubious efforts to appease special interest groups. To be clear, see the items I’ve boldfaced below to highlight the criticality of this lawsuit.


October 13, 2021— This week, conservation organizations Wild Fish Conservancy and The Conservation Angler  filed suit against the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for its repeated refusal to follow state  environmental laws when setting statewide hatchery policy, including when it recently embarked upon a massive  expansion in the production of hatchery salmon that could cause irreparable damage to fragile wild fish  populations and to endangered Southern Resident killer whales. 

Filed in King County Superior Court, the lawsuit alleges that the Department has been ignoring the requirements  of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) since 2018, when it suspended key components of a science-based  hatchery reform policy designed to prevent state hatcheries from continuing to contribute to the decline of wild  populations of salmon and steelhead and from impeding their recovery. This significant action to abandon  science-based hatchery reform was taken without any public notice and was widely criticized, including in a  letter signed by 77 prominent fisheries and orca scientists and advocates, who called on Governor Inslee to  reinstate the science-based policy recommendations and another letter delivered to the Washington legislature by  five former Fish and Wildlife Commissioners responsible for implementing the hatchery reform policy in the  early 2000’s. 

After neutralizing the safeguards provided by this hatchery reform policy, the lawsuit alleges, the Department  began to massively increase hatchery production of Chinook, coho, and chum salmon at state run facilities,  purportedly to provide more food for Southern Resident killer whales. However, the Department did not support its hatchery expansion plan with any evidence that the Southern Resident killer whales would actually eat or be  sustained by hatchery salmon. Killer whale scientists agree the whales subsist primarily upon older and larger  Chinook that are found almost exclusively in the native Chinook populations that hatcheries have failed to  produce, protect, or restore.  

Even worse, the Department refused to engage in the SEPA process, including drafting an environmental impact  statement that would have assessed any and all potential adverse impacts of the proposed hatchery expansion on  both threatened wild salmon and steelhead populations and on the starving Southern Resident killer whales.  Hatcheries have long been recognized as one of the four primary threats to wild fish populations.  

“The Department took a big gamble, with the only certain payoff going to Washington’s fishing industry, while  all the risks are borne by our orcas and wild salmon populations,” said David Moskowitz, Executive Director of  The Conservation Angler. “But state environmental law does not allow the Department to risk the future of our  fish and wildlife on such an unproven strategy—it requires our agencies to make well-informed decisions based  

on a careful analysis of the potential adverse environmental impacts of their actions.” 

In 2020, at the same time the Department was actively implementing massive hatchery increases without  environmental scrutiny, the Department released a report titled ‘A review of hatchery reform science in  Washington State’ that found “hatcheries have potential for large magnitude ecological impacts on natural  populations that are not well understood, not typically evaluated and not measured” and that “…a focus on  efficiency and maximizing abundance prevents widespread implementation of risk reduction measures.”  

What’s more, the report recommended that prior to increasing hatchery programs, more environmental review  was necessary to evaluate cumulative hatchery effects and to ensure increases wouldn’t harm wild fish recovery,  warning large-scale hatchery production “can magnify the political pressure to take advantage of abundant  hatchery runs at the expense of natural populations” and concluding that increasing program size can raise both  “ecological and genetic risks”. The authors warned that “a rigorous justification for program size is essential for  implementing scientifically defensible hatchery programs.” 

“No doubt, many people supported the state’s ‘Orca Prey Initiative’ with the best of intentions, because it  was presented to the public as a scientifically-credible and rigorously vetted solution to feeding the  starving population of Southern Resident killer whales. The problem is that scientists know that producing  more hatchery fish is not going to solve the problem, and will likely make this crisis worse”, said Kurt  Beardslee, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy. 

“As ridiculous as it sounds, reducing overharvest of the whales’ primary food wasn’t even considered as  an acceptable solution by the Governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force and other resource managers.  Instead, the plight of the Southern Residents provided an opportunity for powerful commercial and  recreational fishing interests to push for massive increases in hatchery production, putting our orcas and  wild salmon at even greater risk”, Beardslee says. 

### 

Wild Fish Conservancy is a conservation ecology organization dedicated to conservation, protection, and  restoration of wild fish ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest. wildfishconservancy.org 

The Conservation Angler fights for the protection of wild Pacific anadromous fish populations throughout the  Northwest, all the way to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. theconservationangler.org 

Wild Fish Conservancy and The Conservation Angler are represented in this matter by Animal & Earth  Advocates, PLLC of Seattle, Washington.

Orcas off Point-No-Point

Reader Wendy Feltham sent in these photos she took Thursday as she was bird watching at Point-No-Point. These are J-Pod, according to the OrcaNet.

Endangered predators and endangered prey: Seasonal diet of Southern Resident killer whales – PLOS One

New research out regarding Southern Resident killer whales and their needs for chinook. Very good research here, based on scat samples over long periods of time.

Abstract

Understanding diet is critical for conservation of endangered predators. Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) (Orcinus orca) are an endangered population occurring primarily along the outer coast and inland waters of Washington and British Columbia. Insufficient prey has been identified as a factor limiting their recovery, so a clear understanding of their seasonal diet is a high conservation priority. Previous studies have shown that their summer diet in inland waters consists primarily of Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), despite that species’ rarity compared to some other salmonids. During other times of the year, when occurrence patterns include other portions of their range, their diet remains largely unknown. To address this data gap, we collected feces and prey remains from October to May 2004–2017 in both the Salish Sea and outer coast waters. Using visual and genetic species identification for prey remains and genetic approaches for fecal samples, we characterized the diet of the SRKWs in fall, winter, and spring. Chinook salmon were identified as an important prey item year-round, averaging ~50% of their diet in the fall, increasing to 70–80% in the mid-winter/early spring, and increasing to nearly 100% in the spring. Other salmon species and non-salmonid fishes, also made substantial dietary contributions. The relatively high species diversity in winter suggested a possible lack of Chinook salmon, probably due to seasonally lower densities, based on SRKW’s proclivity to selectively consume this species in other seasons. A wide diversity of Chinook salmon stocks were consumed, many of which are also at risk. Although outer coast Chinook samples included 14 stocks, four rivers systems accounted for over 90% of samples, predominantly the Columbia River. Increasing the abundance of Chinook salmon stocks that inhabit the whales’ winter range may be an effective conservation strategy for this population.

Read the whole research paper here.

Endangered predators and endangered prey: Seasonal diet of Southern Resident killer whales (plos.org)

New whale-watching licensing system will reduce noise, disturbance of orcas.- KNKX

Good news, it appears.


State officials have approved new rules that limit whale watch boats to a three-month season for viewing Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales. They will only be allowed from July through September. The boats may only be near the endangered orcas twice a day — two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. And only three boats at a time near a group of the southern residents. Bellamy Pailthorp reports. (KNKX)

New whale-watch licensing system will reduce noise, disturbance of endangered orcas

To help save orcas, pause whale watching – Opinion at Crosscut

Donna Sandstrom and Tim Ragen give their take on a proposal to possibly protect Orca from excessive noise and harassment. This is a highly contested idea by the whale watching industry and this represents one sides point of view. Read it, do some research and make up your own mind. You can have a say online at the Zoom link noted below.


Suspending commercial whale-watching boats can help southern resident killer whales avoid extinction. Opinion by Donna Sandstrom and Tim Ragen (Crosscut) And, if you like to watch:Sentinels of Silence? Whale Watching, Noise, and the Orca   Ecosong (10/22/20) And, to have a say: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Public Hearing on Commercial Whale Watching, Dec. 4, 11:15 a.m. via Zoom

To help save orcas, pause whale watching

Quiet Sound underwater noise reduction program could soon slow ships, protect Orcas -KNKX

The British Columbia pilot program in this was a success. Glad to see that we are going to try this soon. A common sense approach to fixing part of the problems plaguing the Orca population.


Underwater noise from ship traffic is one of the major threats to Puget Sound’s endangered Southern Resident orcas. It can interfere with the whales’ ability to communicate, navigate by echolocation and find the increasingly scarce salmon they prefer. A recommendation from the orca recovery task force convened by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2018-19 is to reduce noise and disturbance from large vessels. Work is underway to develop a program called “Quiet Sound,” which will alert ships to the presence of whales so they can re-route or slow down. Bellamy Pailthorp reports. (KNKX)

Quiet Sound underwater noise reduction program could soon slow ships, protect orcas

Millions have been spent on orca recovery: Is it working? – Everett Herald


And a follow up to the previous story, this is a good layman’s overview of the issue of salmon and orca recovery. It focus’ on Snohomish County but also discusses Sound wide issues. Notice, no mention of hatcheries here. It’s about habitat recovery. This article appears to have come out from under the paywall at this point.

Restoring destroyed salmon habitat is the key to regaining Southern Resident killer whale numbers. Julia-Grace Sanders reports. (Everett Herald)

Everett Herald

Millions have been spent on orca recovery: Is it working?

Bigg’s orcas in the Salish Sea point to shifting habitat of resident killer whales – Oak Bay News

Nature abhors a vacuum. And species go, if they are able, to where the food is.


To the untrained eye, the orcas socializing in the Salish Sea on Friday could have been the resident whales that many Islanders know and love. But those who know, like Stephen Pincock, owner of Ocean EcoVenture in the Cowichan Valley, recognize the significance of seeing Bigg’s orcas – slightly larger, mammal-eating killer whales – in the endangered Southern residents’ long-time habitat. “We’ve seen [resident orcas] shift to the outer coast more…because there’s more salmon out there for them than in the inner waterways,” Pincock said. “It’s kind of opened the door for the mammal-eaters to come in and take their place.” Nina Grossman reports. (Oak Bay News)

Bigg’s orcas in the Salish Sea point to shifting habitat of resident killer whales

Legislature won’t ban orca-watching boats in Puget Sound – Investigate West

The power of business over science. Not even a moratorium to see if it helps for a year or two. Will the last whale watch boat turn out the lights when you leave the San Juans when the resident orca pod are extinct? Thanks.

Washington legislators came into their 2019 session brimming with proposals to help rescue Puget Sound’s imperiled orcas. But now they have dropped one of the most important – and controversial – ideas: A three-year moratorium on commercial whale watching. Lawmakers denied Gov. Jay Inslee’s attempt to force commercial whale-watching boats to keep extra distance from three groups of orcas that summer in the waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea between Washington and Canada. In doing so, they turned down a key recommendation from an overwhelming majority of a group of nearly 50 researchers, state and tribal officials and others who served on the Southern Resident Orca Task Force. Rachel Nielsen reports. (InvestigateWest)

Legislature won’t ban orca-watching boats in Puget Sound

Whale researcher predicts two more orca deaths this year – Seattle Times

As I’ve stated before in this column, there is not much time left for the resident Orca pod. The Governor’s ideas from the task force are a nice batch of projects, but likely the only hope, and it’s slim at best, seems to be to do all he wants, but go beyond it and breach the Snake River dams this year. It’s possible to do, but would be politically very hard. But there is no other way to get enough smolts out to see quickly. The numbers are just not there. The discussion should be started at once to get the issue on the table in a serious way.  Even if it means Jay killing off his chance at President. Because that is what it would likely do.

Two more orcas are ailing and probably will be dead by summer, according to the region’s expert on the demographics of the critically endangered southern residents. Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, said photos taken of J17 on New Year’s Eve showed the 42-year-old female has so-called peanut head, a misshapen head and neck caused by starvation. In addition K25, a 27-year-old male, is failing, also from lack of sufficient food. He lost his mother, K13, in 2017 and is not successfully foraging on his own…. The southern resident population is at a 35-year low after three deaths this past year in four months. There are only 74 left. “I am going to stop counting at 70,” Balcomb said. “What is the point?” Lynda Mapes reports. (Seattle Times)

Two more Puget Sound orcas predicted to die in critically endangered population

Canada proposes more habitat protection for southern-resident orcas – Seattle Times

Canada is taking steps to expand habitat protection for killer whales to boost survival of the critically endangered southern-resident population. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada is taking steps to expand habitat protection for killer whales to boost survival of the critically endangered southern-resident population. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced Wednesday the department is initiating a 60-day comment period on creating new areas of critical habitat for the whales.

One area is off the coast of southwestern Vancouver Island, including Swiftsure and La Pérouse banks (important for both northern and southern residents). The other is in Dixon Entrance, along the north coast of Graham Island from Langara to Rose Spit (important for northern residents). The move to expand habitat protection comes on top of a reduction by the department of chinook salmon harvest by up to 35 percent for the 2018 fishing season, with a full closure of commercial and recreational fish for chinook in three key foraging areas for the southern residents: the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Gulf Islands and the mouth of the Fraser River.

These measures, enacted June 1, will continue until Sept. 30, and include increased monitoring to assess the effectiveness of the closures. Lynda Mapes reports. (Seattle Times)

 

Whales and their watchers in Discovery Bay

It was reported to me by someone watching from their home that whales visited Discovery Bay on Thursday, with a fleet of whale watchers of various size surrounding them. The whales were likely the T65As, mom and her 5 kids.

Here’s what my friend reported:

Discovery Bay is a place normally void of boaters. I look out over Becket Pt. Sometimes whales come. Yesterday I saw one killer whale. There may have been more but I only saw one surface at a time. It was followed by 4 whale watching boats. 3 of them very large, slowly following the whale. The whale(s) moved to off where Joe D’Amico used to have his gun range. Then these huge whale watching boats started going full throttle past Beckett Pt towards town and some back from town. This went on for a few hours then I had to leave. I’m not sure how many boats were involved. One big boat had an especially load engine and I can only imagine what it sounded like underwater. Sometimes the boat closest to the whale would like guess where the whale was and sometimes be in front of it and sometimes behind. The others kept a bigger distance. The chase boat would slow down and turn around and head for the whale. The other boats were farther away and I guess 100 yards away. But the chase boat probably got closer than that.

A couple of things worth noting. First. The distance to the whales should be 200 yards or more by law.

In 2011, NOAA Fisheries Service adopted new regulations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act to protect all killer whales in inland waters of Washington. Be Whale Wise and Follow the Law. It’s easy as 1, 2, 3…

WHO do the new rules apply to?  All motorized and non-motorized vessels (including kayaks), with exceptions to maintain safe navigation and for certain types of vessels- government vessels in the course of official duties, ships in the shipping lanes, research vessels under permit, and vessels lawfully engaged in commercial or treaty Indian fishing that are actively setting, retrieving, or closely tending fishing gear.
From the BeWhaleWise web site:
Except for specific exemptions, it is unlawful for any person subject to the jurisdiction of the United State to:
I. Cause a vessel to approach, in any manner, within 200 yards (182.9 m) of any killer whale.

II. Position a vessel to be in the path of any killer whale at any point located within 400 yards ( 365.8 m) of the whale.

WHEN do the new rules go into effect?  May 16, 2011

WHERE do the new rules apply?  In inland waters of Washington State- east of the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and south of the U.S./Canada international boundary.

WHY did NOAA adopt new regulations?  Southern Resident killer whales were listed as endangered in 2005.  Vessel impacts were identified as one of the threats.  These new regulations implement an action in the recovery plan and are designed to protect all killer whales by reducing impacts from vessels.  Additional background information on the rationale and analyses to support the regulations is available at  www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov.

IF you see boats harassing an orca, please note the name of the boats, the date, the time, general location, lat/long if you can get it (how? your smart phone! Yes, there is an app for that! Once you note these things, you can either right then or later go online and fill out the following form

http://www.bewhalewise.org/report-violators/

Or call:

For you boaters, please learn the rules so you will help protect our Orcas and not get fined a lot of money!

 

One Orca, two stories. A way forward?

Over the last few days, I saw two stories that really drove the message home to me that we are very likely to fail at saving the Southern Resident Killer Whales without new thinking, outside the box. And it’s really not a box, but about outside the silos. It’s not some dire story of good and bad guys. Just a reflection of what is our lack of being able to look at the big picture instead of silos of interests. One silo is the scientists along with the Tribes, the other is the sports fishing community and it’s state of Washington Fish and Wildlife people. My intent is not be critical of either side but to point out a gap that is likely going to doom efforts to support the Orca.

Over the last week, the Seattle Times and many other news outlets, covered the story of J50. J50 is the SRKW that is in poor health. Scientists and members of the Lummi Nation, are trailing around with the whales with live hatchery Chinook (King) salmon, the Orcas most favored food (though it prefers them wild from either the Frasier or Columbia river. This  is likely because, over thousands of years, these two river systems deposited the strongest and largest population of wild Chinook, every year like clockwork until white Europeans  arrived about 200 years ago, give or take 50 years. We all know what happened next. ) They are doing this because it is, to the best of our knowledge, that there is not enough Chinook salmon for the Orcas to survive. So they are bringing the salmon to the Orcas in order to see if they can nurse J50 back to health. A  noble and worthy effort.

So while the scientists and tribal members were doing their best to feed this wild animal,  another story caught my eye. The closing of salmon fishing for the summer by the State of Washington.

The Peninsula Daily News reported “Chinook Season Wraps Up”. The article stated:

SALTWATER CHINOOK FISHING has closed for the season for the bulk of the North Olympic Peninsula — while remaining open to hatchery Chinook retention off of La Push and south of Ayock Point in Hood Canal. The state estimated … chinook guideline estimates show that anglers caught 61.7 percent of the 4,900 kings allotted (3,023).

One thought is that if the Chinook fishing is still allowed out off LaPush, and the Orcas have gone there, it must be after the fish. So I’m left wondering, if we really wanted to save starving orcas, why on earth are we allowing recreational fishers to catch 3023 fish? As to the ocean limits, according to state F&W, the ocean recreational limits were:

 27,500 fish, which is 17,500 fewer fish than 2017’s quota of 45,000.

So this is approximately 30,000 chinook we are catching when the story of the day is that the Orcas can’t find these fish in the Salish Sea. And this is in addition to whatever the seals and sea lions  have been taking, The studies on seals and sea lions show that they eat primarily juvenile salmon, not as much the older ones! However the study concludes that the seals and sea lions are a problem.

See https://www.earthfix.info/news/article/puget-sound-orcas-salmon-sea-lions-seals-food-study/

and

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-14984-8

 

I have not seen the numbers of the commercial and tribal catch of chinook, but I’m sure it’s higher than 3023 fish.  The State F&W web site stated this spring:

In meeting conservation objectives for wild salmon, the co-managers are limiting fisheries in areas where southern resident killer whales are known to feed. The adjustments will aid in minimizing boat presence and noise, and decrease competition for chinook and other salmon in areas critical to the declining whales, said WDFW.

This seems to say that they state only wants to restrict fishing in the areas where we know the Orca feed. Well, according to what I’ve read, they travel all over the Sound to feed, which is why we see them off Seattle, Tacoma and many other locations. To restrict fishing to some area that they spend more time in seems to be an arbitrary idea of humans as so as to allow fishing to continue.

The facts on the ground (or sea) remain. Some orcas are starving. Many scientists believe we are on the edge of the end of these whales, because the breeding pairs are just too small a number to survive. Calves are dying at birth or shortly after. The Governor has stated that it is unacceptable to lose them and radical ideas need to be implemented. He has dozens of people working on a plan. In the meantime, thousands of chinook are being caught and eaten by us, who have other sources of protein! 

Do we really want to save the resident orcas? Then instead of chasing them with a boat with a few live fish on it, maybe we should consider not competing with them for their food source. Just for a few years, maybe a decade. we may also have to cull sea lions and seals for a few decades to see if it also helps put more fish in the sea, more to placate the fishing interests that routinely claim that they are one of the main competing mammals out there.  The sea lions and seals seem to have rebounded and if the scientists say that a cull of some size is warranted, then let’s do it. Then scientifically see  if things improve. We have alternatives for salmon from Alaska. We don’t need to stop eating the fish. Consider putting a moratorium on catching them in the inland waters and the coast  for five to ten years.This is not a new idea It’s been done all over the world to recover decimated fish stocks. They are called Marine Reserves . It’s a controversial topic to be sure, but it seems to map to our current needs to save the Orcas by giving them more food. And it’s been an idea that many old time fishermen I’ve personally talked to say is needed.

I say this as someone who has done salmon fishing in the Sound in the past, who ate salmon twice in the last three days (and likely will have leftovers of it tomorrow), and who’s son is an avid sports-fisherman with a small boat.

A moratorium is  the fastest way to give more fish to the whales. All other means, whether radical protection of the shorelines, tearing down dams or whatever, will take decades.   But it will take a lot willingness by various groups to put the long range health of salmon ahead of their own short term financial gain and personal pleasure fishing.  Anyone willing to give it a try? If not, why not?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orca protection bill stumbles and dies on state Senate floor – Watching Our Waterways

State legislation that would increase protection for Puget Sound’s killer whales died this week amidst confusing action on the Senate floor. Now, orca advocates are pushing a narrower bill approved by the House to limit remote-controlled aircraft around whales, while they also hope for a $3-million budget appropriation to support other orca protection measures. Whether people should be allowed to fly a drone around the endangered Southern Resident orcas seems to be the issue stirring up the most attention in the Legislature — although it is a small part of the overall effort. Chris Dunagan reports. (Watching Our Water Ways)

 https://pugetsoundblogs.com/waterways/2018/02/17/orca-protection-bill-stumbles-and-dies-on-state-senate-floor/

%d bloggers like this: