Orca Task Force Report a Call to Action

Credit: Credit: NOAA

The Washington State Task Force released a list of thirty-six recommended actions to save the endangered Southern Resident orcas at the Seattle Aquarium today. There is a lot to celebrate. And a lot more left to do.

The Southern Resident orcas are starving. These whales eat salmon, and they are unable to find enough Chinook salmon these days to reproduce. About two-thirds of the Southern Resident orca's pregnancies fail, and none of the orca calves born in the last three years have survived. Tahlequah (or J35) had a calf in August that died just minutes after birth. In a tour of grief, the mama orca carried her dead newborn for seventeen days and more than 1,000 miles this past summer. The next month, three-year-old Scarlet (or J50) died of malnutrition. Scarlet was an easy whale to love and hard to let go. Small and spry, she was known for her playful breaches.

For those of us following the string of tragedies the whales endured this past summer, the Task Force’s recommendations feel like far too little—and come far too late. We all want to turn this long slide to extinction around. We need a light to shine our way out of this sad story.

The Task Force report is long, but if you can look past some of the rather lackluster recommendations that amount to little more than good management practices (like supporting an existing treaty and enforcing laws that are already in place), I see a short list of recommendations that give me hope. Here are my top five.

First, I am encouraged by the Task Force’s recognition that the Columbia-Snake Basin is critical to achieve orca recovery. Any discussion of saving Southern Resident orcas must include talk about the Columbia and Snake Rivers, especially those dams.

Credit: Ice Harbor Dam. Credit: U.S. Army Corps Engineers

The Columbia Basin was once home to one of the largest salmon runs on the planet. Today, its’ the most dammed river system on earth. In the Columbia River Basin, the Task Force reports, dams completely block passage to more than 55 percent of the spawning and rearing habitat historically used by Chinook salmon. Even dams that don’t fully block fish passage take a toll. Dams kill juvenile fish on their way to the ocean, and they make the river slow and hot.

More water spilled over the dams (“spill”) helps send more juvenile salmon out to the ocean. I was happy to see that increasing “spill” was one of the recommended actions:

Recommendation 8: Increase spill to benefit Chinook for Southern Residents . . . at the Snake and Columbia River dams.

Ninety-one percent of the public comments sent to the Task Force strongly supported removing four especially problematic dams on the lower Snake River. While this Task Force was perhaps ill-equipped to make a final decision on whether to breach the lower Snake River dams and replace their energy with clean alternatives, they couldn’t deny the public push to keep this conversation moving forward. In the federal government’s own words back in 2000: “breaching the four lower Snake River dams would provide more certainty of long-term survival and recovery than would other measures.”

Recommendation 9: Establish a stakeholder process to discuss potential breaching or removal of the lower Snake River Dams for the benefit of Southern Resident orcas.

An oil spill in the orcas' habitat could easily end them. The Task Force recommends tug escorts for oil laden tank vessels and legislation forbidding further oil and gas development off the Washington coast.

Recommendation 24: Reduce the threat of oil spills in Puget Sound to the survival of Southern Residents.

Even small vessels produce underwater noise, and that noise can make it more difficult for Southern Resident orcas to find and capture prey. Southern Residents spend less time foraging when vessels are nearby, and in the summer months these whales are often flocked by whale watching boats. This recommendation came at the eleventh hour, and it deeply upset some of our friends and allies who spend the summer months on boats with the whales. Given that this is truly an emergency situation, we support a short-term suspension of whale watching on the Southern Residents.

Recommendation 28: Suspend viewing of Southern Resident orcas.

One recommendation that I like but doesn’t make many people’s top-five list is number 32. On its face, it looks like just another call to enforce existing law. However, right now, there is a draft NPDES permit for the Columbia and Snake River dams. Washington State can broaden the requirements of the permit and make it contingent on a showing that the dams will meet the State’s water quality standards for temperature. Warmer stream temperatures impede upstream or downstream migration, decrease growth rates, and make salmon more vulnerable to predation and disease. It’s important that we eliminate heating in the large still reservoirs behind dams and ensure salmon access to cooler water.

Recommendation 32: Improve effectiveness, implementation and enforcement of NPDES permits to address direct threats to Southern Resident orcas and their prey.

Between now and 2022, the Task Force’s goal is to witness evidence of consistently well-nourished whales, more live births and the survival of several thriving young orcas. Over the next ten years, the Task Force is aiming for ten more whales. It's hard to know if that's enough.

Gov. Inslee signs Executive Order for Killer Whale Task Force
Credit: Credit: OSA

The Pacific Northwest is a mighty place. The power of this small corner of the globe we call home rests in large part in the intense natural beauty and bounty all around us. We feel our fortune every time we glimpse a snow-capped volcano, take a day-hike and pass by 1,000-year-old trees, or travel on a Washington State ferry while orcas swim past. By saving the whale, we are not simply advocating for another long-lived socially intelligent fellow mammal. We are fighting for the preservation of a way of life, a way of living in an alive place.

I attended most of the Task Force meetings, and I sat on one of its working groups. I know from personal experience that many of the advocates and scientists working to save these whales are emotionally and physically spent. Now is not the time for rest. The whales are out there hunting, and words on paper won't feed them. We must now push on our Governor, our Congressional delegation, and ourselves to make the transition to action.