Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington convened a task force to recommend steps to save critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. These orcas live in family groups in Puget Sound, and they and their habitat have been under threat for decades. Between the late 1960s and early 1970s, many were captured for use in zoos and aquariums, and those who remained in the wild have faced other challenges. Hydroelectric and flood control dams, for example, were erected along rivers feeding into the Sound, blocking the passage of salmon, on which the orcas feed.
There are now only 74 members of this beautiful and distinctive population of black-and-white whales alive, and their future is in jeopardy.
Last week, the task force released its recommendations. To our disappointment, there was an immediate focus on halting whale watching and pursuing Congressional action to kill seals and sea lions who also eat salmon. The task force decided to put off actions that most conservation groups and environmentalists agree can actually work, like closing some of the outdated and unused dams that block upstream passage for salmon. This was the solution most broadly supported in public comments to the task force, but the task force merely recommended their future study.
Sea lions too have come under attack in recent years. The federal government granted lethal take permits to Oregon and Washington, after rationalizing that sea lions are killing salmon and that killing them will in turn help the fish survive.
The salmon crisis cannot be blamed on seals and sea lions. The biggest problems are the dams and blocked stream passages that threaten the ability of salmon to travel upstream and reproduce.
The task force’s recommendations have drawn criticism from within. Ken Balcomb, a member of the task force who has also studied killer whales for decades, declared in a statement that he was “embarrassed for the conveners and participants of Orca Task Force who had to endure blatant and ill-informed political manipulation of a process launched with the good intention of doing something bold to help recover the Southern Resident Killer Whales.”
“Honesty was crushed by politics and vested interests, even within agencies whose responsibility it is to manage natural resources sustainably,” Balcomb added. Dan Paul, Washington senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States, was appointed to one of the work groups that focused on prey resources. He expressed disappointment that the task force majority recommended lethal actions that, in the end, are not likely to make much difference.
It is simpler to suggest killing a natural predator or halting an ecotourism activity than to take politically fraught actions such as removing outdated dams, restricting water withdrawals by farms and cities or allocating more funding to opening blocked culverts and silted streams. But the fundamental fact remains. Pointing fingers at easy targets like sea lions won’t save the salmon when the main threats to their survival are not adequately addressed.
There is no question that the orcas of Puget Sound need help, and fast. Females in one of the pods, named J-pod, have recently suffered reproductive failure. Few calves are born and most don’t live long enough to reproduce. Not long ago, millions around the world mourned when the calf of orca Tahlequah, J-35, died at birth, though for 17 days, the grieving mother continued to try to keep him afloat.
At the same time Scarlet, or J-20, a three-and-a-half- year-old orca, was showing signs of starvation. She eventually disappeared from the pod in September despite attempts by researchers to provide her with food and medication.
Killing sea lions to help orcas is not a humane nor sustainable solution, nor is halting whale watching, which, responsibly conducted, educates the public on conservation. We urge Gov. Inslee to reject these recommendations and start over, with a laser-like focus on the politically complex but commonsense changes that will improve the orcas’ habitat and open blocked passages for their natural salmon prey. There’s still time to save these whales, and the world is watching.
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