(Photo by David Hutchinson, from January visit of Southern Resident Killer Whales)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“We saved these whales once … we can do it again, but the clock is ticking.”
With warnings like that one, The Whale Trail‘s executive director Donna Sandstrom is doing everything she can. But the Southern Resident Killer Whales need more help, she explained at The Whale Trail’s midwinter gathering in West Seattle.
She offered specifics, as well as inspiration from a special guest, Maya Sears, who recapped the whales’ most-recent visits to our area.
The exhilaration of those visits is tempered by the increasing odds they will someday be just a memory.
Since The Whale Trail’s last gathering, another resident orca has vanished and is presumed dead, L41. That makes four lost in the past year. “That’s a lot.” This distinct population of killer whales is down to 72, only one above their historic low of 71
“So,” she said, asking aloud the logical question for everyone in the room, “why isn’t anything happening?”
The governor appointed a task force. Sandstrom was on it. The task force published a report (PDF) full of recommendations – here’s a summary:
Before diving into them, Sandstrom recalled the Southern Resident Killer Whales’ return from the brink before, decades ago. The captures of the 1970s, she explained, were based on a massive miscalculation – NOAA issued permits based on a belief the resident orcas numbered 30,000.
In reality … they numbered 300.
Our state sued to stop the captures: “Washington has a history of stepping up.” Before the turn of the millennium, their population had recovered to 98, from the historic low of 71. “If they go below 71, we can’t say” (they can recover).
The threats to their survival are threefold:
-Not enough food
-Toxins in water
-Too much noise
“We need to fix all of them,” Sandstrom said, advocating for a better understanding of all three. For example, she says, though the Snake River dams seem to get all the attention, other river systems provide the salmon the SRKWs need to survive (an estimated 1,400 salmon a day for the entire population), their food comes from six key waterways, from California to Brttish Columbia, “and all are important sources.”
But even if dams came down tomorrow and other problems were solved quickly – a fish takes years to grow. Habitat restoration s vital; so is reducing catch, increasing hatchery production, and protecting forage fish. Yet there’s a way to instantly increase access to the fish out there right now:
Reduce the noise, so the whales can find the fish. This could happen instantly with voluntary compliance, absent the political will to make it happen. Yes, big ships from tankers to ferries are a problem. Even the smallest of watercraft – kayaks and canoes, if close enough – are a real problem. But the largest of all is the whale-watching vessels that are potentially loving the Southern Resident Killer Whales to death. 130 of them in the region, some out 9 am to 9 pm. The noise causes the orcas to have trouble echolocating and socializing, and interferes with their prey too, Sandstrom explains.
“They have to hear to find the salmon and they have to be able to hear to find each other,” which is especially crucial as they share food with their family members.
Sandstrom wants to see a moratorium on boat-based watching of the SRKWs. Lots of other whales to watch out there, she notes. Give these endangered whales a chance to recover. She is truly anguished over the lack of will to quiet things down for the whales, which lose an estimated 5.5 hours of foraging time each day to noise. “Nobody is making noise abut noise” but they need to. “The whales keep losing … What is it going to take – how many more do we have to lose? For these whales to recover, to get to 120 whales, they need to add 1 per year.” That would require, Sandstrom added, cutting the noise in half and increasing the number of salmon by 15 percent.
To halve the noise, she says, would require quieter boats going more slowly and no water-based whale watching closer than 650 yards. “We’re not against boat-based whale-watching,” she reiterated, “but it has to be sustainable for the species you’re watching, and (for the SRKWs) it’s not any more.”
Sandstrom fervently believes that explaining this to more people can turn the tide. Right now, though, she says whale-watching companies are not only resistant, but fighting the calls for change.
One task-force proposal that is sailing toward reality is a plan to require licensing of whale-watching companies. The task of making rules for licensing has fallen to a committee that she says has heavy industry representation, so she’s “losing hope” but continuing to watch.
One thing that does give her hope: Everyone who learns about the whales and becomes advocates for them, like a little girl she assisted with watching from shore during a recent visit by the whales. The child expressed delight at seeing them for the first time. “Every time they come down here, we are refreshed and recharged,” Sandstrom smiled.
The recent sightings were recapped by Maya Sears, who is often out in a research boat with her father, longtime researcher Mark Sears, when the SRKWs get down this way. She listed the recent visits:
December 18 – J, K, some L’s – she noted that we almost never see L’s here. They were headed to Commencement Bay, eating along the way, including about seven mother/son pairs. In Tacoma, they started to socialize; “that was a fun day,” Sears exclaimed.
December 23rd – more whales were headed for Commencement Bay. She explained that when they’re headed that far south, the whales often speed down, and if they find food there, they’ll stay.
December 25th – On Christmas Day they came to Edmonds, some “wake riding” along a big barge.
(January 23rd photo by Kersti Muul)
January 23rd and 24th – Members of all three SRKW pods returned, but apparently didn’t find fish.
She then treated attendees to a “photofest” of highlights from those visits. One takeaway: If the orcas are nearby, go watch from Point Robinson on Vashon’s eastern shore, as they often pass incredibly close.
Sears and her father are often collecting “samples” while out with the whales. Of what? she was asked. Reply: Fecal, scale, flesh, mucus samples, “what they leave us.” Analysis includes figuring out what the whales are eating; lately, primarily young chinook salmon and chum, but they do eat some other types of fish, Sears added. In one case, they discovered the whales had been chowing down on skate, “which was surprising.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Along with helping advocate for baat-based whale-watching restrictions (“reach out to the owners”) and enforcment (the state has “whale officers” in the North Sound but not down here), there’s a lot you can do to reduce the toxins that also threaten the orcas. Everything you use can have a negative effect on the marine ecosystem even if you don’t put it directly into water – home/yard products, pesticides, plastics. Reduce contaminants that get onto roads and into the air and then into Puget Sound – walk or ride 1 day a week instead of driving.
UPCOMING WHALE TRAIL EVENTS: TWT will be at the Fauntleroy Community Association‘s Food Fest annual meeting at The Hall at Fauntleroy 6-8 pm March 17th; Orca Talks are expected at C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor), site of this one, on second Tuesdays; volunteers are always needed.
“We can do this, if we put the whales first,” Sandstrom vowed, “and if we don’t stop until they recover.”
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