A reminder that the Southern resident orcas are still struggling

The Southern resident orcas waited until the very end of June to return to the Salish Sea this year, but their visit may be short-lived. According to the Orca Behavior Institute, part of the L-pod popped into the waters west of San Juan Island on June 26 just to be seen heading back out to sea the next morning.

June was Orca Awareness Month and among the many online webinars orca fans could have attended, one focused on the status of Washington state’s efforts to save the endangered mammal.

The Washington Environmental Council teamed up with Braided River, a nonprofit publisher of conservation books based in Seattle, to create We Are Puget Sound. On June 25, the cooperative group invited members of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Orca Recovery Task Force to speak regarding the status of the state’s recovery efforts. Amid a pandemic, that meeting took place via Zoom.

“We’re so fortunate to live in this amazing place,” Mindy Roberts, who is the leader of the Puget Sound Program at Washington Environmental Council, said.

Roberts noted that living in a region that is defined by water, the salmon has been an integral part of the life of people around the Salish Sea and their decline is affecting not just the orcas for whom they’re the primary food source, but the humans as well. She was a member of the nearly 50 members of the task force which began meeting to discuss how to save the Southern residents in 2018.

“It was a huge, huge effort that culminated in the final report,” Roberts said.

The task force concluded proposing 49 actions that needed to be taken to ensure the Southern residents survive. Sixteen of the actions pertained to increasing the salmon population; 13 to reducing noise and disturbance; nine for decreasing pollution; five regarding funding, monitoring and adapting the plan; five for addressing climate change; and one accounting for people’s growth in the region.

“Turns out there are millions of people that will be calling this place home in coming decades and we know we need to do more today to plan for that growth,” Roberts said. “How we do that is going to be a really important decision.”

Rep. Debra Lekanoff, who is the only Native American woman serving in the state legislature and is vice-chairperson of the House Committee on Energy and Environment, was also on the task force.

“As a state legislator, I am reminded of that every day,” Lekanoff said. “That the decisions I am making are not only going to affect my daughter but they’re going to affect my daughter’s daughter, just like it’s going to affect your children’s children.”

Lekanoff, a member of Alaska’s Tlingit tribe, said she recognizes the economic impact salmon has on the Salish Sea. She noted that if the salmon are healthy, the communities will be healthy as well.

“We’re people of the salmon. We’re salmon people,” Lekanoff said. “We must be responsible to a healthy, clean environment. We must look to salmon recovery to be one of our primary goals.”

Salmon doesn’t care whether someone is a Democrat or Republican, Lekanoff explained, salmon just want to know they’re going to have a home to come home to. She said the goal is to bring back habitat with cool clean water and to obtain net ecological gain.

“It’s going to take all of us to do that,” Lekanoff said, noting that while we build infrastructure, we must think of the salmon. “If we’re going to build it, we’re going to build it green and we’re going to build it right. … I’m excited to build a stronger, greener future for our children.”

It was once believed that there were a couple of hundred Southern residents prior to the era wherein the orca were captured for display at aquariums, Roberts said. In 1976, only 71 remained. The population began to rise and reached a peak of 98 in 1995. Since then their numbers have declined once again, with only 73 remaining as of Dec. 31, according to the Center for Whale Research.

“In a nutshell, the orcas are starving,” Roberts said. “They don’t have enough food.”

Contaminants and pollution are two of the largest culprits, Roberts explained. Vessel traffic also plays a large part in affecting the orcas — even kayaks can be a disruption, she added.

“The Salish Sea region is a busy, busy place,” Roberts said.

“How much more vessel traffic can the Salish Sea take?” Lekanoff asked. “When is enough enough on the Salish Sea?”

Amy Windrope, deputy director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said she appreciates Inslee for creating the task force.

“Without us all pulling together — and that includes the citizens of Washington as well as all the state agencies, we just aren’t going to get there,” Windrope said. “I hope the orcas continue to show us a path forward of light because they really are an extraordinary species and we do have this opportunity to recover them.”

Windrope explained that scientists are “cautiously optimistic” regarding salmon recovery as oceans move toward favorable conditions. She said snowpack is normal, a cool spring kept water temperatures low and The Blob — a patch of warm water that appeared in 2013 off the shores of the Pacific — has dissipated.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that they’re going to be going into a system that is positive for them,” Windrope said.

The adult salmon returning for spawning this season were born around 2015 and have struggled while in the ocean, Windrope said. She added low Chinook returns are expected this year.

“They had unfavorable ocean conditions,” Windrope said.

With that projection made, Windrope explained that helping the orcas to find the salmon is important. She noted increased educational outreach and WDFW enforcement patrols. Additionally, she added that the new commercial whale-watching license regulates how many boats can be around the orcas and for how long.

“So we have an opportunity here to have long term accountability for the future,” Windrope said, noting the whale watch industry is a positive force for conservation. “Our whale watching community has taken a really significant hit with the loss of tourism.”

Windrope explained that WDFW is actively pursuing no-net loss mandates; investigating how to protect the environment as the human population grows; actively restoring habitats; and introducing protection and incentive programs.

“But the reality is, we acknowledge what we have right now has led us to the decline of orca and has led us to the decline of salmon,” Windrope said. “We are working together to improve compliance and make sure folks do the right things on the shorelines.”

WDFW is also working with Canada and the Salish Sea tribes to find out what the effects the restoration of the harbor seal population is having on area salmon.

“There’s a lot of work happening throughout Puget Sound,” Windrope said.

Of the 49 actions, six of them are “substantially done or underway” according to Roberts. She added that eight are underway, two are open public policies and 33 actions remain not yet started.

“We recognize there is a lot of work that is needed to be done … we need more people helping us with this,” Roberts said. “We can’t duck any of these issues, they all have to be addressed somehow.”

The lack of salmon has hurt not just the orcas but people as well, Roberts said. The Salish Sea tribes rely on the salmon for food security. Toxic pollution harms people as well, she noted, adding that People of Collor are disproportionately affected by toxic pollutants.

“We are just, literally, running out of time,” Roberts said. “Overall, frankly, we just need to be better.”

Seattle Aquarium Ocean Policy Manager Nora Nickum also served on Inslee’s task force. She shared one problem facing orca recovery — the United States Navy. According to Nickum, the Navy has been training and testing in Salish Sea waters for years and occasionally it needs to renew its authorization.

The activity the Navy is seeking approval for currently is sonar testing which can cause temporary hearing loss for orcas, Nickum said. According to Nickum, the Navy cited 51 instances of Level B Harassment, which according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are “acts that have the potential to disturb (but not injure) a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by disrupting behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.” She added that the Navy considers that “negligible impact.”

“I have a hard time believing that would be a negligible impact and I don’t think I’m alone in that,” Nickum said.

Historically, Nickum explained, a lookout has been onboard a ship and if an orca came within 200 yards of the training, the Navy would “exercise caution.” She noted the tests are typically done at night making visualization difficult. Her suggestions include having seasonal closures on training; halting testing if the orcas are even farther away than 200 yards; and having better information about where the orcas are.

“There are a lot of existing and emerging tools that the Navy can be using,” Nickum said, acknowledging the WhaleReport Alert System that Canada uses and that Washington State Ferries has adopted as well.

Windrope said that the task force worked with the Canadian government a lot during the process, particularly during the vessel discussion.

“The Canadians had a similar but different process underway,” Roberts added.“I think there’s more work to be done in syncing up our two countries on how to do that better.”

For more information about We Are Puget Sound, visit https://www.wearepugetsound.org/. To watch the video in full, visit https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2020061182.

“Clearly there’s more work to do on all of this. The more people engaged in this, the better,” Roberts said. ”Salmon are in crisis. They’ve been in crisis for a while.”