Five Resolutions You Can Make To Help The Orcas.

In honor of the five orca calves born this year, listed below are the top five things you can do to help the orcas as we move into the next decade. Admittedly the problems faced by the whales are difficult, but not insurmountable, and we owe it to future generations to salvage those things that make this a spectacular place to live; abundant water, salmon, and the orca families that call this home.

We need to look for solutions, instead of focusing on how improbable it may seem to be to fix things – after all “The Wright brothers didn’t contemplate the ‘staying on the ground of things’. Alexander Graham Bell didn’t contemplate the ‘noncommunication of things’. Thomas Edison didn’t contemplate the ‘darkness of things’. ” (Wayne Dyer) So stay positive, and please consider including these in your New Year’s Resolutions:

1) Help restore wild salmon populations.

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New calf L112 traveling with adult female L86 (CWR 2009 photo by Ken Balcolm)

2) Refrain from buying farmed salmon, and ask restaurants not to serve it.

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J 44 with nine-year-old sister J 35 (Photo by Ken Balcomb)

3) Try to keep boat speeds and engine noise low when in the presence of orcas, and follow all recommended guidelines.

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CWR 2009 Photo by Ken Balcomb

4) Be careful of what you put down the drain.

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New calf L113 (Photo by Jamie Nagel)

5) Become involved – help return the captive orca Lolita to her family.

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Seattle’s new little ‘Star’ visit Vancouver Island (Center for Whale Research Photo)

Any efforts you make towards cleaning up the Sound and restoring salmon will help these young orcas to survive and lead healthy lives.

Have a happy and healthy New Year!

If Hydropower Wins Then Salmon And Orcas Lose

By Howard Garrett (Howard Garrett began field studies of Southern Resident orcas in 1981 with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. With his wife, Susan Berta, he is co-founder of Orca Network, based on Whidbey Island WA. Garrett is author of Orcas In Our Midst and a frequent speaker and writer about orca natural history and habitat protection.)

As mentioned in an earlier post, on Nov. 23 Judge James A. Redden held a hearing in Portland that could lead to implementation of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) Biological Opinion (BiOp) within a few months. The BiOp, written by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle for the Bush administration, would allow dam operation until 2018 despite the dams’ devastating effects on endangered salmon and consequent increased mortalities of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which depend on some of these same salmon for their survival.

NOAA listed Southern Resident Orcas as endangered in 2006. Therefore, unlike the previous Columbia-Snake BiOps rejected by the court in 2001 and 2005, NOAA’s 2008 BiOp had to determine whether dam operations would adversely affect, or even jeopardize, these whales. NOAA’s Columbia River BiOp dismissed their obligation to protect endangered orcas, saying that “the decrease in the prey base for killer whales resulting from hydrosystem operations is less than the increase in the prey base resulting from the hatchery programs funded by the action agencies.” This conclusion stands in dramatic contrast to the BiOp written by NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., which says: “there is also no evidence that a population that is predominantly produced in hatcheries can persist over the long term.” And it observes that making even one Southern Resident Orca less likely to reproduce threatens the population because there are so few reproducing members. That BiOp concluded that current water pumping operations in California should be reduced to ensure survival of winter and spring-run Chinook salmon and Southern Resident killer whales, which rely on Chinook salmon runs for food.

The Columbia BiOp does not reflect the current state of fisheries science, for several more reasons.

* The analysis failed to consider differences in spatial distributions of hatchery fish vs. wild fish; that is, hatchery runs do not occupy the same places, at the same times, as wild fish. For millennia Southern Resident orcas have depended on multiple, diverse wild salmon runs throughout every year. Without strong wild Chinook populations, short bursts of monocultured hatchery fish leave weeks or months with few to be found.
* The Calif. BiOp says: “Moreover, some of the current hatchery practices are likely to diminish the productivity, distribution and diversity of CV fall-run over the long term.” Hatchery fish harm and reduce wild salmon, by direct predation, by dilution of genetic adaptations, and by raising fishing quotas that inadvertently take wild fish.
* Reduced genetic diversity makes hatchery populations more prone than wild fish to catastrophic failure; given the depressed size of the Southern Resident population and the documented impacts of inadequate prey on mortality rates, one or two catastrophic fish runs could be catastrophic to orcas.
* Even if hatchery replacement were fine, the BiOp did not assess whether there are currently enough salmon coming out of the Columbia/Snake to support Southern Resident Orcas; if there are not, then even maintaining the status quo is jeopardizing orcas.

Researchers and experts on Southern Resident Orcas alerted NOAA to their concerns over the BiOp both before and after its 2008 release and received no answer.

The state of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe, and a number of fishing and conservation groups challenged the BiOp in federal court. In April 2009, the new Obama administration asked for time to review the BiOp it had inherited. The judge granted the request.

Obama’s team announced its plan on September 15, and said that it stood behind the BiOp “100 percent,” but it nevertheless offered an “insurance plan for salmon” in case the BiOp was less successful than promised. This Adaptive Management Impementation Plan (AMIP) primarily consists of increased monitoring and evaluation of this already heavily studied river system. It also identifies some significant actions to protect the salmon, but those actions are not triggered until the already endangered populations drop to just 20% of their currently weak levels – for four years in a row. The AMIP does mention dam removal, but a salmon population that crashes by 90 percent triggers not dam removal, but only a process to consider and potentially plan dam removal. Any move to actually breach the four lower Snake River dams would require another eight to twelve years of studies, meetings, and hearings before the first chunk of dirt is removed. By then . . . salmon will have all but vanished, and Southern Resident orcas will be dwindling toward extinction.

Despite its flaws, the Bush/Obama hybrid BiOp received praise from Judge Redden. He indicated that the AMIP may help bolster the shaky Bush BiOp and suggested it just needs “a little bit of work” for him to approve it. He also repeated his feeling that dam removal should not be the cornerstone of salmon recovery. Governor Gregoire and Senators Murray and Cantwell also argue strenuously for keeping the dams, as does Rep. Norm Dicks, with most legislators averse to any mention of dam removal. Among our state’s elected leaders, only Rep. McDermott has offered an alternative view, introducing legislation to study the costs and benefits of dam removal.

The power of inertia, the interest and advocacy of those who benefit from the status quo, and resistance to change are strong forces against dam removal. Still, Judge Redden could correct the process and allow a reassessment of removing the four dams that are by far the leading cause of salmon extinction in the Snake watershed. One obvious reason for remanding the BiOp to the agencies for more work is the flawed and inadequate AMIP.

The first legal problem with the AMIP is that it hasn’t been legally added to the BiOp. Federal laws direct how agency documents must be prepared, and they specifically forbid “post hoc rationalization” of agency decisions. The AMIP is precisely that: An after-the-fact justification and attempt to prop up a previously finalized document. As Judge Redden recognized, this is no mere technicality, but a violation of federal law.

Because the AMIP was developed behind closed doors rather than as part of a public process, the science behind it wasn’t made public or vetted by independent scientists. Only in early December, at the court’s direction, did the government grudgingly reveal about a third of the documents backing up the government’s “scientific review” of the BiOp, which took place last July. The government simply claims, revealing few details, that its panel of eight “independent” scientists thought the measures in the BiOp, backed up by the AMIP, will prevent the endangered salmon runs from disappearing. The government even made the scientists sign confidentiality agreements.

The few documents released last week undermine the government’s assertion that the BiOp incorporates the best available science. Consider these excerpts from a government staffer’s memo reporting on the scientific reviewers’ concerns: she refers to the scientists’ “lack of confidence that the [BiOp’s specified recovery measures] could accomplish what was hoped . . . The [scientists] noted that the assumptions regarding hatchery and habitat effects in the [BiOp’s recovery measures] may not be justified . . .They noted that the BiOp did not fully consider climate, land and water use stress on the system because they were considered as a static baseline rather than as a part of the projections . . .” Or this email from a NOAA scientist: “One specific topic that comes to mind and I haven’t really heard a good answer for, is what are we going to do if [Snake River spring/summer] chinook trend downward, or a ‘trigger’ is met? I don’t think we have a plan at all in place for these stocks that are largely in wilderness.”

One reviewer says the analysis behind the triggers is “seat-of-the-pants.” Another says the triggers “mask a lot,” that is, “they don’t really tell you what you would want to know.”

As far as one can tell from the documents thus far released, Obama’s scientific reviewers were never even asked to look at impacts to southern resident killer whales.

This is the “best available science”? Dr. Lubchenco, a MacArthur fellow and former head of the National Academy of Science, stands behind this “100 percent”?

Short story: This is not good science. Its purpose was to save the dams, not to save the endangered orcas and the endangered salmon on which they feed. If Judge Redden approves the Bush/Obama BiOp/AMIP hybrid, then dams and hydropower win, and salmon and orcas lose. Big time.

How Dams Affect Orcas – Don’t Miss The Last Article Tomorrow (12/27/09)!

Below is a general review of Howard Garrett’s previous articles (which can be found on the link bar to the right), taken directly from what he wrote, along with a short bio on Howard. Please visit Orca Network to learn more.

“The Snake River is the Columbia’s largest tributary. Its watershed drains nearly 110,000 square miles of wilderness, including the best and highest chinook salmon spawning habitat in the lower 48 states. As many as six million spawning chinook used to return to the Snake each year. And chinook, as explained in How Many Fish Do The Orcas Need, are the fish upon which Southern Resident orcas depend.”

“Most scientists agree that removal of the four lower Snake River dams would result in a big rebound of wild salmon that spawn there, along with a full range of wildlife and Puget Sound’s resident J, K and L orca whale pods.”

“But a “Biological Opinion” (BiOp), written by the Bush administration, would allow dam operation until 2018 despite the dam’s devastating effects on endangered salmon. Along with salmon disaster, the BiOp will lead to likely extinction of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which depend on some of these same salmon for their survival.”

“14 leading researchers wrote NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco pointing out shortcomings in the BiOp and seeking reconsideration. Their letter concluded, “The recovery of Southern Resident Killer Whales depends on abundant food, which will be difficult, if not impossible, to provide without restoring productivity from the Columbia Basin.”

“This BiOp is mostly about securing hydropower, and not salmon, in the Columbia/Snake watershed. It really is more concerned with electricity than anything else.”

“But we don’t need the Snake River dams to produce it. The dams kill salmon, which in turn depletes whole habitats of vital sustenance, including orca habitat.”

“If we the citizens lobby governments at all levels to mandate efficiency, support renewable energy and promote widespread installation of photovoltaic panels, Snake River salmon will not have to be sacrificed to generate electricity, and Southern Resident orcas may have enough to eat for generations to come.”

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Orca Network Founder Howard Garrett

Howard Garrett began field studies of Southern Resident orcas in 1981 with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. With his wife, Susan Berta, he is co-founder of Orca Network, based on Whidbey Island WA. Garrett is author of Orcas In Our Midst and a frequent speaker and writer about orca natural history and habitat protection.

In 2001 Howard and Susan were awarded “Puget Sound Hero” awards by People for Puget Sound, in recognition of their efforts in environmental education and orca awareness. Feature stories on Howard and Susan’s whale sighting network and the Free Lolita campaign have appeared in the Everett Herald, South Whidbey Record, and the Whidbey News Times, and the Everett Herald featured Howard and Susan in their January 1, 2002 issue’s front page story on “People to Watch in 2002”. In January, 2006, Howard and Susan were featured as “Hometown Heros” in the South Whidbey Record.

Tomorrow: If Hydropower Wins, Then Salmon And Orcas Lose”

How Can Dams in Eastern Washington Affect Puget Sound Orcas?

By Howard Garrett*

As mentioned in an earlier post, on Nov. 23 Judge James A. Redden held a hearing in Portland that could lead to implementation of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) Biological Opinion (BiOp) within a few months. The BiOp, written by the Bush administration, would allow dam operation until 2018 despite the dams’ devastating effects on endangered salmon. Along with salmon disaster, the BiOp, if not dramatically improved, will likely lead to increased mortalities of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which depend on some of these same salmon for their survival. At only 87 members currently in this extended orca clan, significant losses could reduce their numbers beyond the point of no return.

A biological opinion is required when federally licensed or federally funded activities – in this case, federal hydropower operations on the Columbia and Snake Rivers – might harm a species listed under the Endangered Species Act as endangered or threatened. It is supposed to outline how the responsible agencies will adapt the activity to avoid harming the species. The ESA list includes 13 distinct populations of salmon that spawn in the Columbia and Snake River watersheds, including some chinook runs that are essential for survival of the endangered Southern Resident orca population.

The Snake River is the Columbia’s largest tributary. Its watershed drains nearly 110,000 square miles of wilderness, including the best and highest chinook salmon spawning habitat in the lower 48 states. As many as six million spawning chinook used to return to the Snake each year. And chinook, as explained in How Many Fish Do The Orcas Need, are the fish upon which Southern Resident orcas depend.

But Snake River chinook?

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Youngest calf ‘Star‘ J46 swimming with mom ‘Polaris’ J28 and (probable) cousin J34 in Admiralty Inlet 12/5/09. (Photo by Howard Garrett)

Southern Resident orcas tend to reside in the Salish Sea only between May and October (except for a few quick trips back into Puget Sound). The rest of the year, they head out to coastal waters. Their movements are not well known, but scientists believe they forage along the coast, largely for spring/summer and fall Chinook from the Columbia/Snake, Klamath, and sometimes the Sacramento rivers to get them through the winters. The Columbia/Snake Chinook are close to their home waters and were historically the most abundant.

Since the Corps of Engineers completed the fourth of four dams on the lower Snake River in 1975, wild Snake River spring/summer Chinook have not once reached their extremely low recovery targets (the number of spawning salmon necessary to avoid extinction), which must be met for eight consecutive years before the species may be considered recovered. Fall Chinook have barely met recovery targets some years, but that target is low and the species remains threatened and teetering on extinction.

Most scientists agree that removal of the four lower Snake River dams would result in a big rebound of wild salmon that spawn there, along with a full range of wildlife (see below) and Puget Sound’s resident J, K and L pods. Among many examples are these:

* “In contrast to the uncertainty of success from the removal of hydro projects in other portions of the basin, the benefits to Snake River stock survival and recovery would be assured with the removal of the lower four dams on that system…” Western Division, American Fisheries Society. The Western Division of AFS represents some 3500 fisheries biologists.
* The 1998 PATH (“Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypotheses”) report concluded that within 24 years, partially removing the lower Snake River dams has an 80 percent and 100 percent probability, respectively, of recovering Snake River spring/summer chinook and fall chinook. The report also stated that fish barging programs, either current or maximized, have less than a 50 percent probability of recovery. Regardless of assumptions made or model used, dam removal was always the highest-ranked recovery option, and the one with the least amount of outcome uncertainty. The PATH team included some two dozen scientists from government, academia, and independent institutions.
* By the same token, leaving the dams in place is a losing strategy: “Based on our assessment, a recovery strategy for Snake River spring/summer chinook salmon that relies largely on stream restoration to mitigate for known mortality attributable to current conditions imposed at other life stages (e.g., juvenile migration through hydroelectric dams) is highly unlikely to prove effective,” according to Evaluating Tributary Restoration Potential for Pacific Salmon Recovery, Ecological Applications, 17(4), 2007

The majority of orca scientists agree with these findings. When the BiOp was being prepared in late 2007, prominent researchers urged NOAA to assure that endangered orcas were not further jeopardized by inadequate Chinook returning to the Columbia Basin. NOAA disregarded that plea and the BiOp included only a cursory salmon-orca analysis. In a conclusion based on little more than assertions, NOAA stated that the dam-related mortality inflicted on Chinook would not adversely affect Southern Residents. Subsequently, 14 leading researchers wrote NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco pointing out shortcomings in the BiOp and seeking reconsideration. Their letter concluded, “The recovery of Southern Resident Killer Whales depends on abundant food, which will be difficult, if not impossible, to provide without restoring productivity from the Columbia Basin.” Similar concerns were voiced by People for Puget Sound and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Again, NOAA ignored the scientists’ recommendations.

The decline of Snake River salmon populations matters not only to orcas. As they decline, the entire Snake River watershed, an area the size of France, is gradually deprived of essential marine nutrients and chemicals that have been transported upriver for thousands of years by migrating salmon leaving their spawned-out carcasses alongside rivers and streams throughout the wilderness. Pacific Salmon and Wildlife describes the crucial role salmon play in supporting overall ecosystem health. Bears, eagles, otters and beaver are among the 138 animal species that have evolved with salmon as an important part of their diet, and even trees contain chemicals brought upstream by salmon. Indeed, there are lakes once made fertile by returning salmon that now must be artificially fertilized with custom-mixed batches of nutrients to sustain the food web that thrived there before the Snake River dams were built.

In my next post, I’ll look at whether the Obama Administration has done anything to address the BiOp’s orca-related scientific deficiencies.

*(Howard Garrett began field studies of Southern Resident orcas in 1981 with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. With his wife, Susan Berta, he is co-founder of Orca Network, based on Whidbey Island WA. Garrett is author of Orcas In Our Midst and a frequent speaker and writer about orca natural history and habitat protection.)

We Can Replace 1000 Megawatts. We Can’t Replace Salmon And Orcas.

By Howard Garrett*

Technology is rapidly making the need for complete dependence upon hydroelectric power obsolete, and will help pave the way to remove inadequate dams. Just in the past few weeks Home Depot, Sam’s Club, Costco and Lowes have all offered kits for home installation of solar panels. No installation is needed for temporary use, or you can mount the 40-pound panels to the roof, and drill holes – two per panel – into the rafters. After adding a barrier to prevent leaks and a couple of brackets, the panels are bolted to the roof. These affordable panels even manage to wring energy out of our soggy Pacific Northwest skies, and will offset the power used for our holiday lights, or provide power to that new flat screen TV.

Even so, the government continues to drag its feet on the issue of dam removals on the lower Snake River.

On Nov. 23 Judge James A. Redden held a hearing in Portland that could set the stage for implementation of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) Biological Opinion (BiOp) as law within a few months. The BiOp, written by the Bush administration, would allow dam operation until 2018 despite the dam’s devastating effects on endangered salmon. Along with salmon disaster, the BiOp will lead to likely extinction of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which depend on some of these same salmon for their survival.

A biological opinion is required when federally licensed or federally funded activities, in this case federal hydropower operations on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, might harm a species listed under the Endangered Species Act as endangered or threatened. It is supposed to outline how the responsible agencies will adapt the activity to avoid harming the species. The ESA list includes 13 distinct populations of salmon that spawn in the Columbia and Snake River watersheds, including some chinook runs that are essential for survival of the Southern Resident orca population.

The volumes and varieties of information that make up the BiOp are vast, immensely complex and interwoven with changing climates both earthly and political. This BiOp, with its explicit core assumptions based on massive models of salmon runs responding to shifting conditions, also has implicit foundations: considerations of costs and benefits of barging wheat (as opposed to using rail), and especially assumptions about trends in the ways electric power is generated in the Pacific NW and how it is used.

This BiOp is mostly about securing hydropower, and not salmon, in the Columbia/Snake watershed. It really is more concerned with electricity than anything else. For instance, it proposes to reduce the amount of water currently spilled over the dams at crucial periods of juvenile salmon migration. These finger-length smolts require flowing water to take them to the sea. Even with massive, expensive downstream barging of many smolts, most of them don’t make it, which amounts to the single biggest loss of salmon to the dams. Because court-ordered spill during peak smolt migrations has been a vital part of recent improved returns of salmon and steelhead, Judge Redden seemed surprised by the planned reductions. The spills look like they worked, said Redden. Why change them? “Your honor, that comes with a cost, answered the government’s lead attorney. I’m talking about carbon. The more we spill, the more we are going to have to offset that with natural gas and coal.”

That statement reveals, first, the administration’s inability to see beyond a perpetually strained electric power supply. Hence, not only must the dams remain in place, but even a small mitigation like adding some spill for a few weeks a year takes away too much power from the grid. This vision seems based on panic and devoid of problem-solving imagination. But second, it also reveals the government’s apparent lack of interest in conservation to meet energy demand, even though the NW Power and Conservation Councils 6th Draft Plan relies heavily on conservation to take the place of fossil-fuel-based electricity. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council was created by Congress to give the citizens a stronger voice in determining the future of the electricity generated at, and fish and wildlife affected by, the Columbia River Basin hydropower dams. See http://www.nwcouncil.org/energy/powerplan/6/default.htm

But do we need the hydropower generated by those particular dams? At first glance, which seems to be all the federal government has devoted to the question, one might say yes, as the government did. We need carbon-free power. Coal-fired plants will also need to be replaced if we are serious about slowing down global warming, and we’ll even need to move away from cleaner gas-fired plants, so we’ll need even more replacement energy.

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Photo by Howard Garrett

But we don’t need the Snake River dams to produce it. The dams kill salmon, which in turn depletes whole habitats of vital sustenance, including orca habitat. Fortunately there are some very smart people who have worked out how we can have all the juice we need and still let the salmon have the rivers. In a clearly worded, no-jargon description of how it can be done, the NW Energy Coalition says in a recent update to its Bright Future report:

Energy efficiency is the powerhouse. We can save enough energy to meet all normal demand growth, roughly 60% of our total new power needs. An enforceable regionwide target to acquire 340 aMW of low-cost energy efficiency per year through 2050 is a reasonable goal given Northwest utilities already solid energy-saving programs and because saving energy is cheaper and creates more jobs than any other option. Energy efficiency isn’t sexy; it just works.

New clean renewable sources – wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, etc. – will provide the rest of our new power needs. Much of what we need by 2020 is already in the pipeline, mostly in the form of wind power. After 2020, falling costs will likely make solar the growth leader. [See below for more on solar power.]

In parallel, we can create a smart grid to deliver these clean resources. A smart grid will shift from integrating fossil-fueled power with hydropower to integrating dispersed renewable sources in new ways. The transition is already underway, and will be accelerated by new policy innovations and some new transmission lines. And as our cars, trucks and buses go electric, their millions of batteries will act as a giant, dispersed storage system helping to provide back-up for the entire electric grid.

The report goes on to demonstrate how we can replace about 1,000aMW of existing hydropower (the amount produced by the four Snake River dams) with clean sources, thereby rebuilding salmon and the salmon economy.

Upfront financing is critical for small-scale solar installations so we’ll need to overcome some legal hurdles to allow local jurisdictions to provide financing. We’ll also need an energy-efficiency financing bill to pass in the upcoming Washington legislative session (NW Energy Coalition is working on that).

Now the breaking news: In just the past few weeks news of dramatic cost reductions and widespread installation of new thin-film photovoltaic panels have made even NWECs projections seem too conservative. The economic feasibility of a new generation of thin-film photovoltaic solar collectors (Solar’s rapid evolution makes energy planners rethink the grid) on rooftops could alone produce far more electricity than the four lower Snake River dams produce. And, the BBC reports that the cost of installing and owning solar panels will fall even faster than expected, according to new research. Tests show that 90% of existing solar panels last for 30 years, instead of the predicted 20 years, making them more competitive with current power sources.

If we the citizens lobby governments at all levels to mandate efficiency, support renewable energy and promote widespread installation of photovoltaic panels, Snake River salmon will not have to be sacrificed to generate electricity, and Southern Resident orcas may have enough to eat for generations to come.

Next: How Can Dams in Eastern Washington Affect Puget Sound Orcas?

*(Howard Garrett began field studies of Southern Resident orcas in 1981 with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. With his wife, Susan Berta, he is co-founder of Orca Network, based on Whidbey Island WA. Garrett is author of Orcas In Our Midst and a frequent speaker and writer about orca natural history and habitat protection.)

Will The Present Administration Act In Behalf Of Orcas And Salmon?

Starting Sunday, December 20th, we’ll be carrying a three part series, written by Howard Garrett* of Orca Network on the subject of Columbia and Snake River dams. This issue is central to restoration of those Chinook salmon populations, the species most consumed by southern resident orcas.

We’ll look in depth at the problems and possible solutions, and will evaluate how the present administration is performing in addressing the dire state of affairs plaguing salmon survival.

This is a nice introduction to the subject:

Tomorrow we’ll cover the background and evaluate the options available.

*(Howard Garrett began field studies of Southern Resident orcas in 1981 with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. With his wife, Susan Berta, he is co-founder of Orca Network, based on Whidbey Island WA. Garrett is author of Orcas In Our Midst and a frequent speaker and writer about orca natural history and habitat protection.)

Have A Heart SeaWorld, And Let Corky Go Home

What is the age of a five year old orca in human years? Five.

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Corky (Courtesy OrcaNetwork and OrcaLab)

Developmentally speaking, a five year old orca is the same as a five year old human, even though they are born more precocious than we are. They can swim immediately (but must learn how to breathe), and like us they depend on their mothers for milk for the first few months, and nurse for up to a year or two.

They reach puberty about the same age as we do – about 12 for males and 10 for females. They live as long as we do, and stay with their families for their entire lifetimes.
That means that an orca who was caught and taken from our southern resident whales as two to six years of age were just “kids”, and there are just two left in captivity that were taken at such a tender age, “Lolita” who exists in Miami Seaquarium, and Corky at SeaWorld.

Ongoing efforts to return those whales to their natal waters are gaining momentum as we learn the magnitude of the injury we did to those animals, yet there still remains a callous and avaricious attitude by the theme parks in their refusal to allow those whales to go home.

Please keep in mind, that at 4 – 6 years of age the captured orcas had most likely formed permanent memories of their language, families, and environment, just like a child taken from his or her family would, and can integrate back into their cultures.

December 11th marked the 40th year of Corky’s capture, and in support of the efforts by our Canadian neighbors to get her home, please reflect upon this video:

More information on Corky can be found here.

Are Fisheries And Dams Changing Salmon?

From hatching to spawning, present day salmon run a gauntlet of marginal situations: disturbed spawning and nursery habitats, different predators, dams, and changing ocean conditions – each of which challenges both their adaptability and vigor. These are amazing species, and the more I learn about them the more in awe I am of both their importance in, and their adaptability to, their ecological niches. Yet of all the things we think about that the salmon have to contend with in order to perservere in the human landscape, it may come as a surprise that the single most dramatic effect we have on their population may be that we are changing their evolutionary pathway, chiefly due to fishery practices.

Not that the fisheries are in and of themselves at fault – they are required to follow the guidelines given them by government officials. The government in turn get its information from many sources, chief among which are dedicated scientists who are desperately trying to turn the tide on the troubling fishery decline.

Yet the government doesn’t always listen to the scientists, nor does it operate with full public disclosure on these issues – seemingly strangely so, because these are not national security issues nor are they anything of proprietary interest when we talk about salmon restoration. (Future posts will go into that in more detail.). The government can be very slow to react to even the most dire warnings from the scientific community.

Scientists intuitively tend to follow the ‘Precautionary Principle‘, which states; “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Most, if not all, scientists are trained to look for trends in their data when even only the most tenuous connections can be made; and in cases where welfare is concerned a good scientist will usually step up and sound an alarm before all the data is even in.

Government, on the other hand, tends to balk when the cost of acting on tentative data is high – whether that cost is in dollars, jobs, energy, or security – because it is also our government’s job to protect us and to oversee the growth of our nation in the long term. So our government tends to favor a cost/benefit analysis, and this can be detrimental when swift action is called for with respect to environmental issues, such as in taking decisive action to restore our salmon fishery. In this case though, they have been dawdling for over a century over facing this issue, and are running out of time.

In Toward Darwinian Fisheries Management, the authors state:

When Charles Darwin made his argument that life was evolving he began by showing the potency of artificial selection to modify domesticated species, and how quickly animal breeders were able to create new varieties – he cited examples of talented farmers who created new races of livestock within their own lifetime (Darwin 1859). That fishing could act similarly was, to our knowledge, first mentioned in the scientific literature in 1902, when Cloudsley Rutter wrote: ‘A large fish is worth more on the markets than a small fish; but so are large cattle worth more on the market than small cattle, yet a stock-raiser would never think of selling his fine cattle and keeping only the runts to breed from… The salmon will certainly deteriorate in size if the medium and larger sizes are taken for the markets and only the smaller with a few of the medium allowed to breed’ (Rutter 1902).

Thereafter, it took almost a century before these patterns were clearly identified in data, sparked by Ricker’s (1981) study of declining sizes of Pacific salmon Oncorhynchus spp. returning to spawn; patterns he could not explain by any concurrent environmental trend but that were consistent with evolutionary change driven by the size-selective fishery.

The evolution toward earlier maturation when fishing inflicts elevated mortality is driven by reduced longevity – future reproduction becomes uncertain and, instead of investing in growth to acquire a larger body size, evolution favors individuals that invest resources in offspring earlier in life.

They go on to say:

For each year we fish, it may thus take more than 1 year of no fishing for the inherited traits to recover; this has been termed a ‘Darwinian debt’ because we harvest now in a manner that may entail costs for future generations (the term was coined by Ulf Dieckmann in an interview with the Financial Times, August 28, 2004). With due respect to the precautionary principle, this perspective alone is sufficient, in our opinion, for managers to be concerned about the evolutionary impacts of fishing.

But fishing is not the only way that humans are driving the evolutionary biology of salmon – we have added evolutionary pressures by altering the environment as well.

For instance, dams not only impede the salmon’s journey, but dramatically alter stream and river ecology. Salmon must navigate challenging hatching conditions, endure siltification of their natal streams and rivers, and withstand marginal water temperatures – then survive being flung through the dam turbines on their seaward journey. They must escape predators that gather at the dams, and the young salmon must cope with the lake conditions present in the manmade reservoirs created by the dams (which gives a huge advantage to some of the predatory fish species and is not natural to the salmon). Finally the young fish encounter estuaries that are often inadequate in both food and places to hide.

On their return trip, the salmon must battle the same conditions, and again must make it past those dams, increasing the time they must spend in getting to their natal streams.

It would appear that we are selecting for salmon that can manage all of those barriers and survive years at sea, only to allow fisheries to take up to 65% of the biggest survivors.

Who knows what genetic viability is lost in all of this? The consequences are staggering, and need to be addressed in the near future if we are to save the wild salmon, and provide adequate food for the endangered southern resident orcas.

Where Can You See The Resident Orcas Now?

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Recent orca sightings, courtesy Orca Network (map by Advanced Satellite Productions, Inc)

Throughout the year, Orca Network keeps track of sightings of all types of whales and dolphins, as well as orcas. Based out of Whidbey Island, they are in a perfect place to monitor the whales as they come and go into Puget Sound, and their extensive network of contacts keeps them informed wherever the animals are seen in the Salish Sea.

There were many sightings in November, and the orcas have been seen most days this month as they focus their hunt on the relatively abundant fall/winter run of chum salmon, which make extensive use of Puget Sound tributaries for spawning.

The chum salmon prefer to spawn in the lower reaches of rivers and streams, and because of this they are well on their way to changing from the ocean form (called “bright”) to the colorful breeding stage, and consequently the quality of their flesh changes quickly as they approach their natal streams.

What this all means in terms of hoping to spot the orcas is that they are probably concentrating their effort on getting the fish when they first enter the Salish Sea and Puget Sound, while the quality is highest and the numbers of fish are more condensed. The recent sightings near the sills (underwater shallow areas) of Admiralty Inlet (off of Whidbey Island and Port Townsend) as well as by the entrance to Hood Canal would seem to confirm this. The orcas may begin to hunt the chum where the fish gather at the entrances to the tributaries as time goes on, but these are just educated guesses on my part.

However, the orcas’ strong preference for Chinook salmon will also drive where they hunt, and the best strategy overall is to check the recent sightings listings at Orca Network, and be sure to visit their interactive map.

The resident orcas may not be around as much this time of the year as they are during the spring and summer, but because they come down to Puget Sound near Seattle more often, those of us who can’t get up to the San Juan Islands have a great chance to see them, and may even be lucky enough to see one of this year’s calves (and don’t forget to let Orca Network know if you do!).

Seattle’s Little ‘Star’ Orca

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Seattle’s new little Star and her family visited Vancouver Island (Center for Whale Research Photo)

Why the Center for Whale Research, which historically has preferred to use a number for the whales, named this latest calf ‘Star’:

“On November 11, 2009 a brand new baby whale was seen in J pod swimming next to its mother at mid-day near the west side of San Juan Island. A few hours later at sunset the new baby and its extended family swam past the Victoria, BC waterfront before turning back toward Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound for the night. On the 12th and 13th of November the new baby and family traveled extensively near Seattle, WA where they were received with great media excitement; and, on the 14th of November they were back near Victoria, BC.

This family tour of the endangered whales’ core habitat with a new baby seemed to be like “showing off” for a well-wishing crowd of humans that swarm the shores and waters watching them, but really they were looking for food – salmon. Puget Sound Chum salmon are in season for the whales’ diet in early winter, but Chinook salmon are their mainstay diet year-round throughout their range, and they too are endangered.”

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Baby Star swimming with her Mom, Polaris (photo by Mark Malleson)

The new baby is designated J46, and we are going to call it “Star”, for the role that it will play in showing the human inhabitants in this region that it is important to clean up Puget Sound and restore healthy abundant salmon populations to the Pacific Northwest.

That mission brings a message to all of the relevant human nations – USA, Canada, First Nations, Treaty, and non-Treaty – that the first intelligent mammal residents of the region are also investing in these efforts.

We could not ask for a more charismatic indicator, a baby whale, to measure the success of our renewed efforts for restoration. J pod is the most watched family of whales in the Pacific Northwest, or perhaps in the world; and, this is the first year in recent decades that they have produced three babies within one year.

We will all be watching, here and worldwide, carefully and respectfully, to see if they beat the odds and all survive. This is the reality show that really means something.” (Center for Whale Research)