THE WHALE TRAIL: Time for action to save orcas and what they need

(Orcas seen with West Seattle in background, 2009 photo by Terry Wittman)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

“Our theme for this year is matching our learning with action,” says The Whale Trail‘s executive director Donna Sandstrom.

She made that declaration toward the start of her West Seattle-based, but far-ranging, organization’s latest event, an educational/social/inspirational gathering at C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor) a month and a half ago. The featured topic was the salmon on which Southern Resident Killer Whales – our region’s endangered resident orcas – depend. How to help ensure their survival, and that of the SRKWs, was the focus of guest Jeanette Dorner, executive director of the Mid-Sound Fisheries Enhancement Group, speaking to TWT for the third time. Dorner said she has been working for 20 years to restore salmon in Puget Sound, starting with a salmon stream along her parents’ property in Pierce County.

The orcas eat salmon that come from all over the region, so “what we can do … there’s a seed of hope in that,” Sandstrom said. “It may take decades to take down a dam,” but there’s other action that can be done right now. She shared views of whales and salmon – which have “been in the news a lot lately.” Mainstream media coverage can leave people a bit confused and without context about the biggest issues facing salmon here, she warned. “Many people are not aware that we have a federal recovery plan for Puget Sound salmon,” Dorner noted. “We have a road map in the salmon recovery plan … there’s a chapter for every watershed.” She said the plan wasn’t written by “a bunch of NOAA scientists in a back room,” it was written with assistance of communities. The Lake Washington/Cedar/Sammamish Watershed Chinook Salmon Conservation Plan has a 10-year update, in fact.

Her main focus: Habitat. That’s what affects salmon the most, she said.

“Even if we stopped fishing tomorrow, the salmon are not going to survive if we don’t fix the habitat,” she said. She showed then-and-now views of areas such as the Duwamish River estuary – “we’ve made some massive changes …. that have affected the fish.” But it’s not “a lost cause,” Dorner insisted.

Most of the habitat work is for the eggs and juvenile salmon, or areas where fish are migrating back to Puget Sound. “Healthy salmon need habitat,” her slide deck noted – “cool, clean water; mature trees, native plants along the banks; large wood in the stream; deep pools; sorted clean gravel; side channels, wetlands.” The nearshore habitat – which we’ve talked about here before – is vital too, providing somewhere for the little salmon to hang out until they’re bigger and stronger.

“When we live along the shoreline, people want to protect their property, or have docks,” and that changes the shorelines and makes it harder for the fish to hang out – no shallow area if there’s no natural beach, and also less food for the salmon who in turn are food for the orcas, if forage fish’s habitat is altered.

Dorner explained that the MSFEG includes the Green Duwamish watershed and Cedar/Sammamish watershed in King County, plus Puget Sound shoreline and small streams in east Kitsap County. It’s one of 14 areas around the state. She showed work they’ve been involved with, like removing invasive blackberries along the Sammamish River to get ready for future tree-planting. Without trees, the water in the river becomes too warm, and that’s not good for salmon. Along the Green River in Auburn, they have been working with youth to plant trees. She also included photos from a “longer-term project” here in West Seattle, along Longfellow Creek, which runs in a certain spot between houses and a road, and floods “just about every year.” So they have worked on a plan to “turn it into an amenity instead of a problem,” with multiple agencies involved, and that will lead to “re-envisioning” how the road and the creek work in that area, including green-stormwater infrastructure – the project is being designed right now, she said.

And she showed an area in Bremerton where marine-shoreline restoration is under way, with help from Kitsap County, on a privately owned site.

Her agency also does public education, teaching kids about the salmon’s lifecycle by creating bracelets.

And their community involvement includes an upcoming east King County celebration of the Hindu-rooted festival of colors Holi – the painting that is traditionally part of Holi will include salmon-painting this year.

Back to saving the salmon’s habitat – here’s how you can help:

*Volunteer to plant trees, remove invasives, staff an outreach booth
*Donate to help accelerate efforts to help salmon and orcas
*Advocate to tell elected officials that more funding for salmon projects is important – “elected officials need to hear more from people like you.”

Currently only about “20 percent at the most” of the needed projects is funded, she said – and legislators are so worried about other things “that salmon is really low on their radar screen. But if we don’t significantly increase the funding for these kinds of projects, we’re not going to get there.”


What’s the downside of increasing hatchery fish? Dorner said they can compete for food with wild salmon depending on where and when they are released. She said she wanted to be clear that “hatcheries are NOT an evil that needs to be stopped,” but “you have to be smart about it.” Hatchery fish also go astray and may breed with wild fish, leading to a lower chance of survival. But hatchery managers are “doing a ton” to try to help with the recovery, she said in response to another question.

Where is the help most needed? Dorner said the Salmon Recovery Plan identifies geographic priorities, so that’s where their volunteer events focus.

Is salmon production depressed all around the Sound, or are there any bright spots? Dorner said there are many types of salmon listed as endangered species all around the region. Some are doing better than others – the Hood Canal summer chum, for example, have been helped enough that they might be a candidate for delisting, “but unfortunately that’s not the case for many” of the other endangered types.”

What can people do to talk to their neighbors and help with public awareness? Dorner said one part of that question is “how do we get people to care, if people don’t love this place for the natural environment?” But “many of the things that salmon need (are things) that make this a healthier community, a nice place – for example, something everybody can do is think about their impact on the stormwater,” which is important for orcas and salmon. Polluted stormwater can kill fish, bioaccumulate in orcas – sign up for RainWise and get a raingarden or a cistern for your house. (Depending on where you live, you might be eligible for subsidies.) Also, plant more trees to absorb the water – and people who own shoreline habitat are the most critical to get involved. People are not required to restore habitat – it’s voluntary, she said, “and if people say ‘no, I like things the way they are now,'” they can’t be forced. And there are resources out there – all they need is have people speak up and say they’re interested in finding out what can be done. “We need people to invite us.” And they can help get grants to cover the cost.

One attendee said that not everyone even realizes there are salmon in Seattle – take your neighbors, friends, whomever, to go see them. “If they don’t know that they’re here, how are they going to care about them?” Dorner agreed and mentioned the King County program Salmon SEEson.

She showed the annual report and a map that goes with it. Overall, she said, “there’s a lot going on right now that could make you pessimistic – but when you go out to a stream, and there are people ripping out blackberries, you can (think) ‘I made a difference today’.”

Involvement with The Whale Trail can be an ongoing way to make a difference, too, Sandstrom said. “To recover these whales, we need a shared and clear vision of recovery.”


The Whale Trail’s events now will segue into planning action for the whales. She said for one, people shouldn’t be saying that the whales are beyond recovery – the population has been even lower before, as low as 71. She wants to form working groups around the three issues:


And she hopes to create education kits around those issues. “One of our biggest challenges is changing the stories being told about these whales.” You’ve heard a lot about tearing down the Snake River dams. But legislators also need to hear “that Jeanette’s projects need funding,” or that vessel-based whale-watching could be limited.

“We don’t have any time to wait for these whales,” and they are hoping to spread the message to other areas – of the city, and beyond.

If you can help – contact Donna. In all, she hopes people will move from feeling overwhelmed and cynical, to “feeling engaged and powered.” She feels many people are waiting for that opportunity, all along The Whale Trail. “It’s the power of the pod.”

One attendee suggested – volunteer for EarthCorps work parties, which are happening this year, and wear a Whale Trail T-shirt, and start talking with people.

Another attendee said that if she could be a part of rescuing Southern Residents, she “would be so proud.”

Sandstrom said she also believes that it’s important to tell the truth about what’s going on – “are we willing to let some people not make as much money as they can, so the orcas have a chance to (find the salmon).” She declared that it’s time to “take risks” to do what needs to be done to save the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Her organization is 10 years old and ready to step up even further, with volunteers’ help.

P.S. This whale story was shown:

To get involved, contact The Whale Trail via

7 Replies to "THE WHALE TRAIL: Time for action to save orcas and what they need"

  • Don Brubeck February 25, 2018 (7:06 pm)

    “Polluted stormwater can kill fish, bioaccumulate in orcas”.  Most of our pollution of storm water is from motor vehicles dripping oil,  fuel  and antifreeze on roadways that drain into streams and the sound. We as individuals can reduce storm water pollution by to walking, biking, and taking public transit instead of driving to our destinations, whenever possible. 

  • Rob Freeman February 25, 2018 (10:08 pm)

    If you would like to read up on the latest research, projects, plans and goals on Stormwater in Western Washington this is where you can find it by clicking the link.

  • Rob Freeman February 25, 2018 (10:36 pm)

    Incentives are available for property owners through RainWise or the GSI Mini Grant Program for stormwater retrofits(i.e. cisterns, rain gardens, depaving, green roofs, grattix).  Contact Rob at Yard Art and we can set up a no cost walkthrough to get you the right project in the right place.  I am certified for Low-Impact Development Design, Operations & Maintenance.  We are your neighborhood RainWise Contractor. Thanks for getting involved.  

    Rob Freeman    Yard Art LLC   206.919.0304

  • anonyme February 26, 2018 (6:07 am)

    We can also stop eating salmon, an important piece of this approach that no one wants to acknowledge.  You can improve habitat all you want, but as long as humans are fishing salmon in huge quantities to accommodate the exponential growth of our own bloated species, salmon will continue to disappear – and orcas along with them.  The math is simple; you can’t “harvest” larger and larger quantities of a “resource” and expect that resource to rebound in even greater numbers just to meet growing demand.  This video featuring environmental scientist David Suzuki sums it up:

  • Whatever February 26, 2018 (6:12 am)

    A run on sentence in a headline.  Now that’s impressive.  No, wait. What’s the opposite of impressive?

    • WSB February 26, 2018 (9:28 am)

      I appreciate corrections, but none is needed here. “Orcas and what they need” = object of “save.”

  • Donna February 26, 2018 (10:12 am)

    Thanks WSB for the story, and to Jeanette for the presentation and to everyone who attended! 

    Our next meeting is Tuesday March 6, 6:30 at C&P.  We’ll be meeting at C&P the first Tuesday of every month for the rest of the year.  Join us!

    The Whale Trail is also celebrating its tenth anniversary this year! We’ve been promoting shore-based whale-watching since our founding in 2008, starting right here in West Seattle. From 16 original sites there are now more than 90, spanning the west coast from California to British Columbia.

    Our overarching goal is to recover the SRKW from the threat of extinction. Watching whales from shore is not only fun (and awe-inspiring!), it’s a specific and strategic conservation act. 

    The southern resident orcas lose 5.5 hours of foraging time each day due to noise and disturbance from the whale watching industry and commercial benefits (ECHO Program 2017). Turning down the volume in the Salish Sea is something we can do now, with immediate benefit to the whales.  

    Hope to see  you on the 6th. Bring your ideas and good will for the whales. Kids welcome too!

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