The bison of Montana, the alligators of Florida, the wild horses of Colorado — every state has a signature species it takes pride in.
Washington is lucky enough to have two iconic animals: orcas and salmon, whose destinies are both intertwined and in peril.
In Puget Sound, the population of the endangered southern resident killer whales has declined from 98 in 1995 to 76 today. The diets of southern resident orcas consist largely of Chinook salmon, but the Chinook are listed on federal and state endangered species lists. If the Chinook population continues to decline, the southern resident orca population will follow.
Both species have historic and rich cultural ties to Washington, especially in tribal communities. Chinook are emblematic of Washington’s world-class fishing industry, a favored menu item at local restaurants and an integral part of many family fishing traditions that predate the state. In addition to the cultural and economic importance of salmon, whale watching expeditions contribute as much as $60 million annually to the state’s economy.
Recognizing the dire need to protect both these species, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order today outlining a strategy for southern resident orca and Chinook recovery.
“The problems faced by orcas and salmon are human-caused, and we as Washingtonians have a duty to protect these species,” Inslee said. “The impacts of letting these two species disappear would be felt for generations.”
The order instructs state agencies to outline immediate steps and long-term solutions to recover these species. The order also assembles a task force to bring together state agencies, tribal leaders, local governments, federal partners and other stakeholders to make recommendations at the state, regional and federal levels. Given how far orcas migrate, the task force is also directed to coordinate its efforts with leaders in British Columbia, Oregon, California, Idaho and Alaska.
Thomas “Les” Purce, former president of The Evergreen State College, and longtime civic activist Stephanie Solien, vice president of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, will serve as co-chairs of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force. Both say that many of the actions needed to protect southern resident orcas and Chinook will ultimately mean a cleaner and healthier environment for humans as well.
“The orca dilemma is giving us a unique opportunity,” Solien said. “Our goal is to recover the orca, recover the salmon (and) improve the quality of life for everyone.”
“This is not going to be easy work,” Purce added, but it is important to “recognize that the work we’re doing now is so critical, not just for the orcas, but to all of us and the future of our kids. … It’s what we leave them.”
Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman reiterated the urgency of protecting the southern residents.
“The orca whales are vital to our culture and spirituality as we are the first people on Puget Sound,” Forsman said. “They act as sentinels, observing our behavior and its impacts on the health of our waters. They bless us with their presence and depend on us to keep our sacred pact with the Creator to care for this beautiful land.”
The task force will propose funding and legislation to help the orcas. Its first report, due Nov. 1, will highlight problems that southern resident orcas face, including a lack of prey, toxic contaminants and vessel traffic and noise. The report will detail ongoing and new actions that will address the major threats to these mammals.
The Washington Legislature this year approved $115,000 for the development of a long-term orca recovery plan, $548,000 for more enforcement of rules for vessels that travel near orcas and $837,000 for hatchery operations that boost the stock of Chinook salmon and other key prey species.
Threats to southern resident orcas
Starting in the spring and well into the summer, southern resident killer whales feed and socialize in the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands, creating a tourist spectacle.
But it appears that the whales are finding prey, chiefly Chinook salmon, hard to come by. Scientists from the University of Washington, in collaboration with others, found mother orcas able to successfully deliver only a third of pregnancies, with failures attributed to malnutrition.
Southern resident orcas that are able to find enough Chinook to eat face other problems, including ingesting toxins, which are picked up by salmon from environmental pollution. Those toxins accumulate in the orcas’ fatty tissues and are eventually metabolized and shared by mother orcas with their fragile newborn calves through gestation and lactation.
Southern Residents also struggle in waterways littered with noisy vessel traffic from whale-watching and other boats. That traffic interferes with the whales’ ability to hunt and socialize. A recent study found southern resident orcas lose up to 97 percent of their ability to communicate with each other because of noise pollution.
The executive order outlines several short- and long-term actions related to unhealthy toxics, oil spill prevention and vessel traffic, including exploring ways to quiet ferries and freight traffic. The Port of Vancouver in British Columbia recently found successes in noise reduction by asking vessels to voluntarily slow down in Haro Strait.
The order also aims to make prey more abundant for the orcas by creating healthier Chinook salmon runs.
Chinook need a healthy and dependable environment to travel and reproduce, but are threatened by habitat loss, toxic pollutants (particularly those in stormwater runoff), streams blocked by development, predators and newly arriving invasive fish. The loss of habitat and diminished water quality are key threats that led to the listing of Chinook salmon as a federally endangered species almost two decades ago.
Additional agency actions outlined in the order:
- The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife will identify high priorities for southern residents and adjust programs if needed.
- Fish and Wildlife and the state Parks and Recreation Commission will increase enforcement and education concerning vessels and Chinook fisheries.
- The Washington State Department of Ecology will expand training programs that teach whale-watching vessels how to assist in the event of an oil spill.
- Ecology will prioritize funding for stormwater mitigation projects that contribute to southern resident recovery.
- Agencies will outline strategies for improving fish runs and habitat necessary for the survival of southern resident orcas.
The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force will deliver a second report to Inslee in October 2019 before dissolving.