Wednesday, May 12, 2021
GRAND SLAM: For whale watchers, a “Grand Slam” refers to sighting four unique species of whales during a single outing. The Pacific Whale Watch Association reported that, on Mother’s Day, at least two professional whale watching companies each hit a “Grand Slam”—sighting a minke and a gray whale in Rosario Strait, a humpback mother and her calf near Waldron Island, and several Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea. Mother’s Day also brought to surface the three young calves in J Pod, the threatened population of Southern Resident orcas in Puget Sound.
J57, a male born in September 2020, remains healthy. Two more calves also have been born to J pod, J56—a female born in 2019, and J58, a female born in 2020—are likewise going strong. The latter females are particularly critical to the survival of the residents, as they will birth and nurture future generations of calves.
The quickening health of J pod has led to cautious optimism among researchers, who believe the pod may be in its best condition in more than a decade.
Over the Easter weekend—another celebration of birth and renewal—more than 56 orcas were spotted throughout the Salish Sea.
“There are signs for optimism; in general over the last several years J pod is in better condition than in much of the last decade,” John Durban, a professor at Oregon State University, and research associate with a regional orca health monitoring project, told the Seattle Times.
Despite signs of encouragement, the outlook remains grim for these iconic residents.
Southern resident killer whales are a specific type of orcas native to the Salish Sea. The orcas feed exclusively on fish, primarily Chinook salmon. In tandem with a decline in Chinook runs, the southern resident population has plummeted.
The most recent estimates suggest fewer than 75 southern resident orcas remain. According to the Marine Mammal Commission, the historical population may have numbered more than 200 whales before the 21st century, which is when modern impacts started to impact the orca population. Climate change, population change and more than a century of development and human activity across the Puget Sound have impacted orca survival rates. The southern resident orca was listed as endangered in 2005.
In 2019, Governor Jay Inslee took steps to turn matters around, signing five crucial orca recovery bills and assembling a task force to recommend steps to limit vessel noise and traffic, improve the safety of oil transportation through the Salish Sea, and increase fish forage habitat and Chinook salmon for the orca’s food source.
The Washington Legislature carried forward with these efforts this session—notably a Quiet Sound initiative, a newly proposed program aimed at reducing ship noise and disturbance in the Salish Sea. The Quiet Sound proposal was championed by 40th District Rep. Debra Lekanoff and Sen. Liz Lovelett, and while supported was not fully funded in the final state budget.
Last fall, the Center for Whale Research also took a major step and purchased a 45-acre ranch bordering both sides of Washington State’s Elwha River, in a stretch of the mainstream river where a majority of the remnant native Chinook salmon now spawn.
“The one bright spot that we can see in the Chinook salmon issue resides in the Elwha River ecosystem,” Ken Balcomb, CWR Founder and senior scientist, said.” Demolition of two obsolete hydroelectric dams that blocked salmon from the headwaters and historical salmon spawning ‘grounds’ was completed in 2014. The salmon are coming back in greater numbers each year, and in 20 more years, they may reach historical population levels. Restore the ecosystem, and the salmon will recover, is the message. Un-build it, and they will come. It is a good story that saves the fish and us from beating our heads against an entrenched political and economic system that ignores ecological reality.”
There are some indications that even larger, though metaphoric, dams may be coming down—as even Republicans begin to grapple with the issue of declining fisheries and the impacts of that on the regional economy: Not all dams that wall up the region’s rivers are important dams.
The federal response is also resurgent under a new administration.
In April, NOAA Fisheries proposed another five-year extension to the agency’s previous five-year plan to provide immediate, targeted efforts to halt declines and stabilize the at-risk species.
“The 2021-2025 five-year action plans build upon existing action, recovery or conservation plans and detail the focused efforts needed over the next five years to reduce threats and stabilize population declines,” NOAA researchers outlined in their proposal.
“This action plan builds on the success of the past five years and highlights the actions that can be taken by us, other federal and state resource agencies, environmental organizations, Native American tribes, and other partners to work toward turning the trend around for this species from a declining trajectory and toward recovery.
“Unfortunately,” researchers cautioned, “even with new partnerships and actions, we have not yet seen the trajectory of the population change and, as of the 2020 annual summer census, there were only 72 whales in the population. While the three new calves born since the summer census count in 2020 provide hope for population growth, challenges remain for the survival of those calves.”
The agency will continue to take public comments on the plan update through June 21.