Task force narrows list of ideas to save killer whales from extinction


By Christopher Dunagan

The term “no silver bullet” has been heard again and again as dozens of experts from throughout the state examine ideas that might help avoid extinction for Puget Sound’s beloved orcas.

The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, created by the governor, is considering short-term actions — such as increasing hatchery production of Chinook salmon to help feed the whales. But it is becoming uncomfortably clear that there are no easy answers, no “silver bullet,” as the task force heads toward the finish line for drafting an emergency recovery plan.

The 45-member task force, which represents diverse groups from throughout the state, was created in March out of the realization that there might not be much time left to act before the orcas enter a death spiral toward extinction. Gov. Jay Inslee called on the task force to develop a draft plan by the end of October to help the orcas, whose population has declined from 98 animals in 1995 to 75 today. Most worrisome is the fact that no new babies have been born and survived since the fall of 2015 — and reproductive females have been dying off one by one.

Dramatizing the plight of the Southern Residents, a 20-year-old female orca named Talequah (J35) gave birth to a calf on July 24. The infant lived only about 30 minutes. Talequah, apparently filled with grief after a 17-month pregnancy, placed the dead infant on her head and began carrying it with her. For the past 17 days, each time the carcass slipped beneath the waves, Tahlequah dived to retrieve it. Her burden has slowed her movements, but she has stayed with her pod, traveling hundreds of miles from Washington into Canada.

J35 and her calf. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
J35 and her calf. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

“This is the whales telling the story that I could never tell,” said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, speaking as a task force member during the group’s meeting on Tuesday. Balcomb has been studying these whales for 42 years, and he knows the individual tendencies of each animal, young and old.

Balcomb said anyone could look at the family charts maintained by his research team. They show ongoing losses of young animals, premature deaths of older animals and miscarriages never recorded, all preventing the population from recovering.

Mindy Roberts, director of the Washington Environmental Council and another task force member, followed Balcomb by echoing his sentiments. “The whales have spoken louder than anyone,” she said. “This is something that resonates, not just with people in this room but nationally and internationally as well. Frankly, the solutions need all of us to pull together for a suite of actions. There is no silver bullet that we can count on anymore.”

Some task force members seemed on the verge of tears as they wrestled with the reality of the problem. Another expression heard in the room seems to capture the task force’s determination: “Go big or go home.”

How much time?

The risk of extinction has been modeled in several “viability analyses” over the past few years. Based on recent trends, the population is likely to decline further until it reaches a level of “quasi-extinction,” in which there are not enough breeding animals to sustain the population.

“Because the population is so small, slight changes in births and the sex of calves can have a big influence on modeled future population growth,” according to a five-year status review issued at the end of 2016 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Of the nine Southern Residents born in 2014 and 2015, only two are known to be female. One of the nine died soon after birth before observers could determine its sex. Three of the young males have also died.

Scarlett (J50), one of the two females, has been shown to be emaciated and on the verge of death. Federal biologists have begun an intervention by injecting her with antibiotics, and they could soon be feeding live Chinook salmon to the nearly 4-year-old calf.

It is unknown whether the high ratio of male births in recent years is the result of environmental conditions affecting the mothers — such as low food supply or toxic chemicals — or if it is just a coincidence. But a ratio far outside of 50-50 increases the extinction risk, according to the 2016 report.

“If one assumes that recent trends continue, then things look very poor,” said Mike Ford of NOAA Fisheries during an interview. “If one assumes a turnaround in conditions, then things can change totally. With declining trends, there is a strong sense of urgency regarding the status of the population.”

Shifting the outlook

The greatest threats to Southern Residents are a lack of food, toxic chemicals in their bodies and noise and disruption from vessels in areas where the orcas feed and reproduce, according to a variety of experts. The potential for an oil spill is another threat with potentially sudden and lethal consequences.

The need for food rises to the top of the list, according to Balcomb and others, because malnutrition puts the whales at risk of starvation and also disease. Research suggests that when the food supply is good, more babies are born, whereas less food means fewer babies.

Southern Residents prefer fat-rich Chinook salmon to all other fish, a trait that probably served them well 200 years ago when Chinook were thriving. But many wild Chinook populations have gone extinct and others are barely holding on. Toxic chemicals in Puget Sound get picked up by the salmon and passed on to the orcas. [Read our report in Salish Sea Currents about the impacts of toxic chemicals on starving orcas.]

Mother and calf (J50). Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.
Mother and calf (J50). Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.

Researchers say an insufficient diet causes the whales to burn their fat reserves and release toxic chemicals into their bloodstreams. The outcome may be disruptions in their neurological, immune and reproductive systems.

According to Balcomb, the best evidence that insufficient food is the biggest problem for the Southern Residents comes from an examination of transient killer whales, a separate subspecies of orca that eats seals, sea lions and other marine mammals. Transients, which are more contaminated than Southern Residents, appear to be getting plenty of food, and their population is thriving, he said.

How to get more Chinook

Southern Resident killer whales are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In search of Chinook, they travel in groups north from Puget Sound into British Columbia, Canada, and along the West Coast as far south as Monterey Bay, Calif. In the U.S. alone, nine species of Chinook — including those in Puget Sound — are listed as threatened or endangered.

How to get more Chinook to the whales is a primary goal of the governor’s task force and a key subcommittee, the Prey Availability Work Group, which has been looking at both short-term and long-term efforts.

Discussions in the work group are organized around the conventional “four H’s” of salmon recovery: Hatcheries, harvest, habitat and hydro. The group has since added two new letters: “P” for predators, such as seals and sea lions that eat the salmon, and “F” for forage fish, such as herring that feed the salmon.

Elbowing its way into the discussion is the controversial issue of removing four dams on the lower Snake River in Southeast Washington. Many environmental groups have banded together to increase the political pressure for dam removal, which they say is the most practical way to increase wild salmon populations in the upper Snake River watershed, including pristine wilderness in Idaho.

During Tuesday’s task force meeting in Wenatchee, members of the public were given a chance to make brief comments. More than two-thirds of 32 speakers called for removal of the dams.

Ken Balcomb said he has considered every suggestion to get more Chinook for the killer whales, and he believes removing the dams would produce more fish quicker than any other idea, because it has already been studied as a viable solution by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Opponents of dam removal, including some members of the task force, say the dams are needed for irrigation, to get crops to market, to provide electricity and to reduce flooding.

Members of the task force generally agreed to put the dam removal issues on the table by convening experts in an online forum to explain the competing interests. The forum has not yet been scheduled.

Hatchery production

Both short-term and long-term ideas are being considered to increase hatchery production of Chinook with the least impact on wild runs, beginning with an $837,000 appropriation from the Legislature for this year alone.

The goal is to increase Chinook stocks whose migration overlaps with that of the killer whales, both in Puget Sound, along the coast and at the mouth of the Columbia River. A “priority tool” developed by NOAA and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife calls out salmon runs in North and South Puget Sound and the Lower Columbia River as especially important, mainly because the salmon runs cross through areas frequented by the whales.

Hatcheries under consideration for the short term must have available capacity, according to Eric Kinne, manager of WDFW’s hatchery division. The extra production must be approved by state, tribal and federal authorities — including those charged with protecting wild Chinook under the Endangered Species Act.

After the short-term plan is complete in the coming days, the parties will go to work on a longer-term plan, including a proposal for the upcoming two-year state budget. Concerns include long-term genetic effects of breeding that may occur between wild and hatchery fish as well as the potential of increasing competition for food and habitat.

The task force has discussed ways to improve hatchery management to help the orcas, such as supporting runs of hatchery Chinook timed to the needs of orcas, provided that risks to wild stocks are acceptable.

As recommended, hatchery fish would be marked, with an ongoing goal to catch as many hatchery fish as possible after the orcas have a chance to eat them but before the fish can spawn. Methods include targeting fishing on hatchery stocks near their destination or using fish traps in the rivers, or both.

Harvest management

The task force is looking for ways to further reduce the harvest of Chinook in ways that can help the orcas, given complex procedures used to allocate salmon harvest to various groups in compliance with the Endangered Species Act. Some studies have shown that cutbacks in fishing will not provide an equivalent number of fish to the orcas, because the whales’ movements are not predictable and other predators are likely to take some of the foregone harvest.

Some members of the task force have discussed targeted temporary closures in areas where orcas are foraging. Another idea is to require release of all Chinook over a certain size to give the whales a chance to catch larger fish, although concerns have been raised that many fish caught and released will die anyway.

Task force members generally agree that more effort should be made to reduce the incidental harvest, or “bycatch,” of Chinook in fisheries targeted on other species.

Phil Anderson, Washington state commissioner on the Pacific Salmon Commission, reported this week that the commission recently completed negotiations to update the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the U.S. and Canada. Subject to consultations and approvals by governments on both sides of the border, the new treaty provisions will reduce fishing in northern areas to better protect Chinook returning to Puget Sound and the Columbia River. The new treaty provisions also increase funding for Chinook hatcheries to increase prey for the whales, he said.

Salmon habitat

Additional funding could accelerate the restoration of Chinook salmon habitat and ultimately boost salmon populations, as spelled out through statewide planning efforts. Funding priorities currently are guided by seven regional councils, ranging from the Upper Columbia to the Washington Coast as well as Puget Sound and Hood Canal. Under discussion is how to select salmon-restoration projects that would better serve the orca population.

In the Puget Sound region, 15 “lead entities” provide technical and community forums to reflect local values and come up with the most important projects funded each year. These 15 groups along with lead entities in other regions generally support the existing priorities for restoring Chinook populations through habitat-restoration projects, said Alicia Olivas, lead entity program coordinator.

Other ideas to protect and restore Chinook habitat include increasing enforcement of existing habitat-protection regulations, developing new land-use rules to avoid habitat degradation, and even purchasing important lands and waterways that could be restored to help Chinook.

Hydro dams – the fourth “H”

Besides discussions about taking out the lower Snake River dams, some experts believe that many dams could be better managed to increase salmon survival by adjusting spill rates if the focus were on improving salmon runs and not power production. The task force generally agreed that more information is needed.

Dams that inhibit Chinook migration could be proposed for removal or the addition of new facilities to improve fish passage. In some places, it may be possible to open up and restore salmon runs above the dams where habitat has been blocked. At other dams, consideration should be given to installing facilities to reduce Chinook predation by birds, sea lions and fish.

Competition for Chinook

Concerns about predation of Chinook, especially by seals and sea lions, has resulted in mixed reactions from task force members to the idea of killing marine mammals that could be consuming fish important to the whales. Getting approval for such lethal removal would be complicated, given constraints of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Studies are underway to improve the estimates of how many Chinook — both juveniles and adults — are consumed by predators, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings, who coordinates the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project and is a member of the Prey Availability Work Group. Harbor seals, for example, eat many kinds of fish and may rely more on juvenile Chinook when they can’t find herring, hake, cod, rockfish, sardines and other fish of their choosing.

Also needed are better estimates of the number of marine mammals consumed by transient killer whales, which are helping to control the seal and sea lion populations — thus helping the Southern Residents — to an unknown degree.

Short of killing seals and sea lions, Chinook consumption in certain areas might be reduced by eliminating haul-out areas where the animals rest between feedings. Actions could focus on “choke points” where the greatest predation of Chinook is observed.

Forage fish

The task force is also looking at the status of Puget Sound’s forage fish — small, nutrient-rich fish such as herring that provide an important food resource for Chinook. Although herring are known to compete at times with young Chinook, increasing their numbers is expected to benefit adult Chinook which also prey on other forage fish such as sardines, anchovies, sand lance and surf smelt.

Restoring beach habitat with the removal of bulkheads and increased sandy substrate could increase forage fish populations, experts say. Generally, the task force and working group support an initiative to improve beaches by making changes to railroad tracks that have degraded much of the Puget Sound shoreline.

Also under review is the potential of reducing fishing that targets one or more species of forage fish, with the goal of protecting fish that feed the Chinook that feed the Southern Resident killer whales.

Whether it comes down to small forage fish or any number of other issues — from hatcheries to habitat recovery — task force members say improving the food supply for Puget Sound’s endangered orcas continues to remain as complex as it is urgent.

The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force is scheduled to meet again on August 28th in Anacortes, Washington.