Don’t give up on our orcas | Reporter’s notebook

This summer was particularly hard for Southern residents. The world wept watching J35, Tahlequah, carry her deceased newborn calf through the water for over two weeks and people are devastated another young whale, J50, Scarlett, recently lost the fight for her life, being severely emaciated and ill. With only 74 whales left, the outlook may be bleak. However, islanders and those across the Pacific Northwest are not ready to imagine the Salish Sea without these whales. Instead, they are rolling up their sleeves and taking action. We applaud their love for our local orcas.

During a public hearing held by National Oceanic Atmospheric Association in Friday Harbor, on Saturday, Sept. 18, the public’s passion for these iconic animals was clear, as they called for the agency to do more to preserve their primary food source, Chinook, or King salmon, including putting limits on catching the endangered fish. Studies show Southern residents diet consists of approximately 97 percent Chinook.

“I’m doing this because I think this will have an immediate impact putting food into the mouths of these animals,” said Greg Hertel, Friday Harbor Port commissioner, explaining why he and fellow port commissioners Barbara Merrett and Graham Black have sent a letter to the Pacific Fishery Management Council to allocate 250,000 Chinook for the whales.

The Fishery Management Council is an international organization, according to Hertel, that sets the limits for fish, shrimp and other seafood from California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Currently, the whales are lumped in a small fluctuating category called “ocean loss.” What Hertel and his fellow commissioners hope is that the Southern residents will essentially be listed as a user group entitled to an estimated 250,000 salmon, the amount the whales eat each year. Formulating fishing limits in this manner, Hertel said, would give the whales first crack at the fish.

“We caused the problem and we can take the hit while longer-term solutions are worked on,” said Todd Nichols, director of the port. “This is something we can do in real time, right now to reduce human take.”

The port staff and volunteers have also been reaching out to other ports across the state to see if they will sign on to the letter. While none have joined yet, the feedback has been positive.

The local restaurant Coho has taken salmon off the menu altogether. Restaurants and grocery stores in Seattle have also stopped selling the endangered fish. Individuals are even proclaiming, for now, they will not eat Chinook, for the sake of the whales.

People are putting pressure on lawmakers to take down dams along the Snake River. Breaching these dams could make a huge impact on the Chinook, making it easier for them to migrate up and down the river, as well as restore their habitat.

“Even people from Eastern Washington are advocating taking down the dams,” said Jacques White, a member of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force formed by Gov. Jay Inslee to come up with recommendations to protect the orcas.

At the Sept. 18 NOAA meeting, commenter after commenter supported removing the dams. In fact, over 250,000 people have signed a petition to Inslee requesting the dams be breached.

Noise from vessel traffic also is believed to impact the whales’ acoustics. To address that, shipping and cruise ship companies have voluntarily reduced the speed of their vessels as they travel along the Westside of San Juan Island to a slow and quieter crawl. Some individuals are also advocating that the whale watch industry give the whales more space, especially while the animals swim along the Westside which has historically been one of their fishing areas.

All these actions may seem like a small ripple in a deep and vast ocean, The biggest waves, however, can start as a tiny disturbance in the water before turning into a tsunami. In your day-to-day life, just think, what could you do to help the Southern resident orcas who call our islands home?