With Tahlequah’s Newborn and Scarlet Gone, Orca Advocates Race to Save Their Kin

The plight of the Southern Resident orcas is bringing together a coalition of state and tribal leaders, scientists, and grassroots communities to avert a looming extinction.
A young Southern Resident killer whale chases a chinook salmon in the Salish Sea near San Juan Island, Washington State, in September 2017.

John Durban /NOAA Fisheries—Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Eclipse. Spock. Rhapsody. Polaris. Princess Angeline. These distinctive names were bestowed by hopeful participants in an adopt-a-whale program at the Whale Museum on San Juan Island in Washington State. In taking part, they sought to support a family in serious danger: Southern Resident orcas, now numbering only 75 members.

The population, which has declined by 24 percent since 1995, resides among the western coastal islands of Canada and Washington State and along the coast of Oregon. These orcas live in matriarchal families and are split into three pods, referred to as J Pod, K Pod, and L Pod. The scientists who study these whales can identify each individual, whom they know by a unique numerical name that reference the given animal’s pod, such as J15 or L95. But most people call them by their common names, like Tahlequah (J35), the grieving mother who made international headlines in August when she carried her dead calf for 17 days, and Scarlet (J50), who died of starvation a month later.

“Tahlequah’s haunting display of mother grief coupled with young Scarlet’s death had even the scientists in tears this summer,” says NRDC senior attorney Giulia Good Stefani, who focuses her work on marine mammal protection.

Southern Resident orca J50 (AKA Scarlet) and her mother J16 near the west coast of Vancouver Island. Scarlet died of malnutrition in September 2018.

Brian Gisborne/NOAA

In addition to inspiring an outpouring of human sympathy, the stories of Tahlequah and Scarlet resulted in a growing awareness of the sharp decline in the availability of Chinook salmon, which is the Southern Resident orcas’ primary source of food. With the assistance of a whale poop–sniffing dog, scientists have determined that Chinook in fact make up roughly 80 percent of regional orca diets, according to Ben Enticknap, senior scientist for the conservation group Oceana in Portland, Oregon. Even when other salmon are more abundant, Enticknap says, “orcas will hunt and select Chinook salmon because they’re generally larger, fattier fish that give higher nutritional value, more bang for the buck.”

But salmon stocks have fallen so low that in September 2018, Washington and Oregon fishery managers closed all salmon fishing for a large portion of the Columbia River, one of the fish’s traditional and historically most plentiful breeding grounds. The Chinook counts were 29 percent lower than what had been forecast for the year, and that forecast was already less than half of the 10-year average return of Chinook.

Now a variety of state and federal officials are launching new initiatives that may help save the orca population, directly and indirectly. Advocates like Good Stefani say that these efforts are crucial for a species on a path to “real and rapid extinction.”

A Transnational Pacific Salmon Treaty

In September, the United States and Canada came to a tentative agreement on renewal of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. The treaty was created in 1985 to resolve a difficult issue: Salmon, as vigorous migrators, don’t recognize international boundaries. Each country’s fishermen were catching fish that “belonged” to another nation—Canadian fishermen might catch salmon reared in American hatcheries, while U.S. fishing boats might scoop up salmon migrating back to British Columbia’s streams.

The full text of the agreement won’t be released until it’s been formally reviewed and ratified in the coming months. Initial reports indicate that it mandates up to a 7 percent capture reduction for Chinook salmon in Alaska and a 12.5 percent reduction in Canada during years when poor salmon runs are expected, according to Colleen Weiler, a fellow with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation organization.

To help restore Chinook stocks in Puget Sound and elsewhere, the treaty will result in $43 million in federal funding for habitat restoration projects, increased hatchery production, and improved monitoring, if Congress funds the recommended plan.

“Overall, the purpose of the treaty is to manage the runs so salmon aren’t being harvested by either nation to depletion, taking more than its fair share,” says Good Stefani. “The big-picture management of those fisheries, in a way, provides for sustainable fishing that will benefit the orcas.”

A State Task Force Devoted to Orcas

Good Stefani is part of an expert working group for a task force charged with devising a long-term orca action plan. The task force was created by Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, last March. “The governor’s office has encouragingly recognized the dire strait of the orcas,” Good Stefani says.

Altogether, the task force comprises 50 individuals from a broad cross-section of organizations and affiliations, including the U.S. Coast Guard, University of British Columbia, Humane Society of the United States, Squaxin Island Tribe, Puget Sound Anglers, and the Center for Whale Research.

On November 16, the group released a report outlining the major threats and offering recommendations, incorporating research from working groups tasked to study key issues, as well as more than 18,000 written public comments. The recommendations included specific state, federal, and local actions to increase available Chinook salmon, reduce the orcas’ exposure to chemical contaminants, and decrease vessel disturbance and noise in their habitat.

Stop the assault on whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals

For example, an orca uses echolocation to bounce sound off objects and hunt down dinner; as a result, Good Stefani notes that a noisy environment makes it difficult to find salmon. “Their ears are their eyes,” she adds. Due to geography, Puget Sound shipping lanes cross the orcas’ summer habitat as ships are channeled through straits and narrow corridors.

To deal with sound-related issues, the task force’s specific recommendations included establishing a “go slow” mandate for any vessel coming within half a nautical mile of Southern Resident orcas, educating recreational boaters, and reducing noise from aging engines in the Washington State Ferry fleet by accelerating a move to hybrid-fueled engines, a transition already underway.

The task force’s last overarching recommendation: Ensure funding and accountability to support implementation of the above initiatives.

A State Governor’s Strong Stand

Governor Inslee did not ignore the monetary request. In December 2018, he issued a proposed $1.1 billion budget to support actions that may help rescue the orcas from extinction. As the report states, these initiatives benefit other species as well, boosting salmon recovery, mitigating climate change, and improving water quality for all.

In response to the task force’s recommendations, Inslee earmarked $18 million for incentives encouraging landowners to take voluntary habitat protection measures, and nearly $12 million for boosting capacity at Department of Fish and Wildlife hatcheries to produce 186,000 additional Chinook juveniles, called smolts. He allocated more than $10 million for enhancing programs to control toxic chemicals by speeding up contamination cleanup, reducing polluted stormwater, and more effectively addressing wastewater, among other actions. 

Live chinook salmon are released into waters off San Juan Island in 2018. The effort was a practice run to work out trying to feed live fish to an ailing young female orca in the area.

Alan Berner/The Seattle Times via Associated Press

The governor also recognized the particular importance of the Columbia River’s Chinook salmon for the orcas, for example by proposing to direct the Department of Ecology to increase the spill of water over the Columbia Basin’s federal dams. (Sending more water over the dams speeds juvenile salmon’s trip to the ocean, where orcas await.) More controversially, he also recommended $750,000 for a stakeholder forum to identify the mitigation and transitions needed if the federal government decides to remove four dams to aid salmon on the Snake River, the Columbia River’s largest tributary. “You cannot talk about saving the Southern Residents without talking about breaching the lower Snake River dams,” says Good Stefani. “Behind those dams wait millions of acres of cool, pristine salmon spawning habitat.” A court-ordered review of the basin’s dams—including the removal of dams on the Lower Snake River—is currently underway.

In addition, Inslee recommended a three-year suspension of Southern Resident orca watching, to reduce disturbance and improve the species’ chances for recovery. Because of their proximity to shore and Seattle, the whales are frequently swarmed in the summer by commercial whale-watching vessels.

Changes are already taking place. In January, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife agreed to consider the orcas’ need to feed when determining the 2019 salmon catch thresholds for recreational and commercial fishermen. And it will seek new hatchery funding to boost salmon production by 24 million fish in the next two years, with an ultimate goal of 50 million fish, according to The Chinook Observer. For the first time, Washington also recently opened up public comment on its handling of the Columbia Basin dams’ failure to meet state water quality standards, including for temperature, which is a growing threat to salmon in a warming climate.

Meanwhile, in the past few weeks, two more orcas have been reported to be near death due to starvation, including Princess Angeline, who is Tahlequah’s mother. And a new orca calf has been spotted among the L Pod.

It has been named Lucky.

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