The Gristle

Too Little, Too Late

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE: Even as careful plans were being laid to treat and rehabilitate J50, the ailing young breeding orca, biologists and trackers with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island were reporting she had already died of disease and starvation. We watched from a distance as she wasted away until she was gone.

J50, also called Scarlet, was part of the same family group as a mother orca who gained international attention earlier this year for carrying her dead newborn, in an apparent display of mourning, for 17 days. She was one of the last female calves born to this dying family of Southern Resident killer whales.

“I don’t want to leave you with any false hope,” Ken Balcomb, head of the Center for Whale Research, said in a press conference. “We are witnessing a slow-motion extinction here,” he said of the endangered resident killer whale population.

“Losing Scarlet is particularly difficult after a truly heroic effort on the part of so many in the U.S. and Canada to save her life,” the co-chairs of the Governors Southern Resident Orca Task Force said in a joint statement. “Her suffering and death follow too closely the death of J35’s calf and the 17 days of orca grieving that brought world attention to the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas.

“This is not a time any of us who cherish Puget Sound and the animals that live there would have chosen to witness. The slow demise of these highly intelligent, compassionate fellow beings is heart rending. We have heard it said that the difference between empathy and compassion is action.”

Compassionate citizens demanded action, submitting more than 250,000 signatures to task force members when they convened in Anacortes in August, urging immediate steps to remove redundant dams on the lower Snake River in an effort to provide starving orcas the salmon they need.

Gov. Jay Inslee has been slow to champion this very specific request, announcing instead initial agreement between the United States and Canada to recommend new coast-wide fishing rules under the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

The agreement outlines each nation’s fishery management plans for chinook, coho and chum stocks from 2019 to 2028. If approved, the treaty may result in more salmon returning to Washington and Oregon waters, where many populations are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“This step comes at a crucial time as we continue to see declines in chinook salmon populations around Puget Sound,” Inslee said.

Under the new terms, Canada will reduce its chinook fisheries by as much as 12.5 percent from 2009–2015 levels while Alaska will cut fisheries to reduce impacts to chinook by as much as 7.5 percent from 2009 levels during years when poor salmon runs are expected. Fisheries in Washington will remain tightly constrained unless runs exceed management objectives.

Unfortunately, the wheels of federal governments turn slow. The governments of Canada and the United States must first approve the recommendations of the Pacific Salmon Commission before the treaty can be considered in 2019. The U.S. commissioners include representatives from Washington state, Oregon, Alaska, and Northwest and Columbia River Treaty Tribes.

Starving whales don’t have much time; and the minor reductions in fisheries and marginal improvements to habitat alone won’t turn the tide on their crisis. The productive output of added hatcheries is years away, even if they are approved and funded.

Chinook salmon were once very large fish, comparable to the size of a small harbor seal. One fish would be a good meal for an orca, perhaps even enough to share with young family members. But today’s chinook are not what they used to be—in terms of size, abundance or the timing of their spawning cycle. Commercial fishing and shoreline development has wiped out many early chinook runs.

Scores of local residents gathered over the weekend in Friday Harbor, Seattle and locations throughout the bioregion in a Salish Sea Day of Action, demanding heightened response in an emergent crisis. They planned to rally support for Scarlet; instead they mourned her loss.

Early recommendations from Inslee’s task force suggest slow speed zones near whale feeding and the killing of sea lions, which compete with them for salmon—tepid half-measures that angered many in attendance at these events.

Speakers demanded drastic steps to save the orcas, including shutting down fishing for chinook, creating a whale sanctuary in known foraging areas so the orcas can hunt without vessel traffic, and—again—breaching the Lower Snake River dams to boost fish returns for the whales.

“We know people all over the world are ready to act on behalf of the orcas,” task force members said in their joint statement as they prepare to release their findings next week. “They have told us that. They have shown up at our meetings. They have written us emails and letters. They have gathered together and demanded intervention on behalf of the orcas.

“If compassion were fish, the orcas would not be starving. If compassion were clean water, our orcas would not be suffering the effects of toxic contamination. If compassion were quiet waters, our orcas would once again be able to find their prey and communicate with each other.”

“In the 163 years that settlers have occupied this land, we have seen the nearly complete decimation of land and sea creatures in the Salish Sea,” Pamela Cəlálakəm Bond, a Snohomish tribal member, said at the Seattle gathering. “Fossil fuel projects and corporations of all kinds contribute to pollution, to climate change and ocean acidification. Our own sewers empty into the water, along with pesticides and fertilizers. What we do to the water, we do to the land, we do to the people,” she said.

And we do first to the whales.

March Silver Reef
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