Become involved and turn the tides for Orcas | Guest Column

The clock is running out for Southern resident killer whale recovery. But the question is not, “How much time do we have?” rather, “What can we do that will reverse the current extinction trend and how quickly can protection and recovery actions be implemented?”

As members of working groups for the governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force, we’ve had the privilege of participating in a challenging, time-consuming, sometimes frustrating and hopefully productive process. Before the taskforce’s first report is issued on Nov. 16, the public has one more opportunity to comment on draft recommendations from Oct. 24-29. To learn how your comments can be most beneficial to the orcas, come to a commenting workshop from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 27 at the Cheesecake Cafe in Friday Harbor.

The taskforce’s iterative process, while cumbersome, will hopefully prove to be an effective method for elevating bold actions for salmon and killer whale recovery for Gov. Jay Inslee’s consideration next month. Public participation has provided some significant contributions to recommendations currently under consideration. Removal of the Snake River dams is a complicated and contentious issue that could have been punted to the future if not for public insistence and participation in the taskforce process. The Snake River dam removal may be a critical component of orca recovery, but will not, in and of itself, save the Southern resident killer whale. Actions are needed in multiple areas. Southern residents need enough to eat, quieter seas, and cleaner waters.

There are fewer Chinook salmon, the Southern residents preferred prey. Vessel presence and associated noise have the potential to cause orcas to expend more energy to find the scarce Chinook salmon. Energy spent when there’s not enough to eat causes Southern residents to burn fat releasing the toxins that are stored in their blubber which can lead to compromised immune systems and make it more difficult for the whales to forage and find food and have healthy calves.

Transient whales that eat seals and other marine mammals have more toxins in their fat than Southern residents, but because they are getting plenty to eat, the toxins in their blubber are not released into their bloodstream and do not affect them. Southern residents live in a perpetual state of famine and deeper famine. The most critical action to take is to increase the availability of Chinook salmon throughout the whales’ entire range, including reducing incidental bycatch (Chinook salmon caught accidentally when fishing for other species).

To increase the Southern residents population, we need to address their entire food web: adult Chinook salmon need forage fish and forage fish need natural beaches and sediment supply bluffs, eelgrass, and vegetated shorelines.

Ferry-dependent islanders should support the taskforce recommendations to construct quieter ferries and WSF’s draft long-range plan that includes new, quieter, plug-in hybrid-capable ferries. Because ferries represent over 70% of commercial vessel traffic managed by the USCG’s Vessel Traffic Service, reducing ferry noise will have a significant benefit to Southern Residents. The hybrid ferries will also lower greenhouse gas emissions, which is needed sooner than later to address climate change. Comments can be submitted now through Oct. 25 on WSF’s draft long-range plan

Participating in the Southern residents taskforce and WSF long-range plan processes are two opportunities for the public to benefit SRKWs. Every action taken to reduce the threats to the SRKW will increase the chances of their recovery. There is reason to hope. Multiple Southern residents from all three pods are pregnant. For all of us who say that we love the Southern residents, it’s our responsibility to take individual actions, including ensuring that the Southern residents recommendations that are chosen by the governor are implemented quickly and effectively.

Deborah Giles and Lovel Pratt

Deborah Giles, Ph.D., is the Science Director for Wild Orca and is a resident scientist at UW Friday Harbor Labs,; Lovel Pratt is the Marine Protection Program Director at Friends of the San Juans,