First of a three-part series. See parts 2 and 3.
FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash.—The mood around San Juan Island has been decidedly cheerier the past couple of weeks: The Residents are back.
By “Residents,” everyone here means the Southern Resident killer whales (also known locally by their acronym, the SRKWs), the salmon-eating orcas whose population (now down to 73) has been on the endangered species list since 2005, and who generally return to these inland waters in the summertime.
The celebratory mood here since they returned on Aug. 21—a sunset arrival viewed by a crowd of avid whale watchers at Lime Kiln Lighthouse, on the island’s west side—has been especially acute because of the long wait: While the Residents normally can be seen in these waters in June and July, they have been utterly absent here (outside of a brief peek in July) until this late-summer appearance.
This has been the second consecutive summer mostly without Residents here, and it has been something of a cultural shock for island residents accustomed to their reliable presence and the economic boon it brings in tourists coming from around the globe. So the sudden appearance of about 20 members of J Pod, the most frequent visitors here, has cheered everyone.
However, the memories of what happened last summer are the dark cloud lingering in the background. That was when the orca identified as J35—nicknamed Tahlequah—gave birth to a calf who apparently survived only a few hours before perishing; so her mother, in a display of mourning, began pushing its tiny corpse about in the water, holding it up for everyone to see.
This was not entirely unusual behavior: It had been observed previously among mourning orca mothers, but typically for only a matter of hours, perhaps a few days. But Tahlequah did not stop. Eventually she did it for 17 days straight before finally giving up.
It was the height of whale watching season, and Tahlequah—who, like all the Southern Residents, was plainly aware of the humans who come to watch them—seemed to be sending a message. Certainly, as her sad tale unwound before a gathering global media that came to witness her grief en masse, her calf’s death and the ensuing coverage of the orcas’ plight made irrevocably plain: These orcas are starving to death before our eyes.
But that was only half the message the public needed to hear. These orcas are dying because of humans—most of all, human politics.
Many people in the orca-watching and environmental communities in the San Juans angrily blame their state’s politicians for the whales’ plight. They have good reasons.
The black-and-white cetaceans, one of the only such populations that can be seen with relative ease by visitors and residents alike, are iconic for the Pacific Northwest, having achieved a kind of mythic status for their innate power and beauty. You see them everywhere in the cities—on downtown Seattle murals, on T-shirts, on buses and airplanes, at art shops and jewelers, on business logos, represented in public art ,and central, in many ways, to the region’s self-image. After all, it was the captures from these waters between 1964 and 1976 that founded the captive-orca marine park industry, though only one of the estimated 58 orcas that were removed from this population remains alive today (Lolita, at the Miami Seaquarium). Striking and charismatic, the creatures’ various images are pervasive here.
The attachment, however, runs even deeper than that. Many Northwesterners recognize that these orcas represent a unique national treasure, the only one of its kind in the world. So the decades of environmental neglect that their precarious status reflects have also brought an agonized, simmering anger to the region, even as the local whale watching community mounts a kind of death watch for the orcas they have long tried to defend.
Most of all, as the apex predator in these waters, the orcas are also the ultimate indicator species. Their ill health is a powerful indicator that the overall health of Puget Sound and its adjacent waters is in a precarious state.
There have been lots of issues linked to the decline in the population, including toxins in the waters of the region, and the presence of vessels and their noise and its negative effects on orcas’ abilities to seek prey. But scientists readily acknowledge that all of these issues would become functionally irrelevant if they were to solve the gorilla in the room, the major and ultimately primary cause of the killer whales’ plight: a lack of salmon.
First listed in 2005 under the Endangered Species Act, the Southern Residents have been struggling with the loss of their primary prey—namely, Chinook salmon, which comprises about 80% of their diet—for decades now. What frustrates observers—as well as both whale and salmon advocates—is that the listing produced a lot of studies and handwringing, but precious little action.
This is especially the case with the region’s salmon runs, which have been on the endangered list since the early 1990s, with new rivers and new runs seemingly added every year. The picture for Chinook is especially grim: Along the Pacific Coast from California to Washington, some 13 Chinook runs are listed as threatened or endangered. Total salmon runs in the Columbia River system, even after recent federally touted “recoveries,” remain at only about 1% of their historical levels.
While a paucity of available prey is at the root of the orcas’ predicament, there has been no shortage of blame to go around—particularly pointed in the direction of the fleet of whale watch boats that often tracks, and sometimes surrounds, traveling orcas in the Salish Sea. The boats are accused of forcing the whales to expend extra energy to avoid them, and, more importantly, of creating enough noise in the water with their engines to interfere with the orcas’ echolocation, the whales’ sixth sense that enables them to see underwater.
However, recent research on vessel noise and its effects on orca behavior indicates that whale watch boat noise is only a secondary problem compared to the primary source of such noise in these waters—namely, the large ships that come through Haro Strait en route to the port in Vancouver, usually from ports in Asia and Russia. The noise thrown up by these huge freighters—from both their propellers and their massive hulls—can sometimes be nearly deafening underwater, and will shut down orcas’ communications for extended periods of time.
University of Washington marine scientist Scott Veirs has been studying this issue for years, assembling an impressive collection of data and transforming it into studies that make clear that large-ship noise in fact profoundly impacts killer whales. “These ships are not only prevalent, but quite loud compared to other sources of noise in the ocean,” Veirs told one reporter. “Ships are dominating the soundscape.”
That doesn’t leave the whale watch boats blameless, of course. One study found that the presence of whale watch boats increased the time that orcas spend altering their behavior due to noise, though only marginally—from 3.0 hours daily to 3.2.
Whale watch operators point out that they also provide a safety buffer for the orcas by giving local boaters—who can be prone to speeding through pods unawares—a heads-up to the whales’ presence. Regardless, the whale watch operations are the focus of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups to create even larger buffer zones around the whales.
“They provide a sentinel role,” explained Kelly Balcomb-Bartok, a spokesman for the Pacific Whale Watch Association, to The Seattle Times. “Without the whale-watch fleet, there is nothing to tell that Bayliner to slow down. Continuing to hammer on the industry is not helping. Let’s focus on the fish, that is the real problem.”
It’s also worth noting that PWWA’s extensive lobbying in Olympia—primarily built on demonstrating the vital economic role the SRKWs play for the San Juan Islands—played a key role in the one major piece of good political news for the orcas in recent years: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 2018 executive order creating the formation of a task force charged with spearheading an effective recovery plan for the Southern Residents.
The task force—comprised of a range of stakeholders, from salmon advocates to staunch dam defenders—began meeting the fall of 2018. In December, Inslee proposed a $1.1 billion package of legislation aimed at orca recovery, the bulk of which was dedicated to paying for culvert replacement in sensitive salmon habitat areas.
Tahlequah’s globally reported mourning, and its message, had given the measures an intense level of approval. “These expenditures have to be done now,” Inslee said. “There are lots of things in life you can put off for a decade. This is not one of them … This is a one-time shot.”
The bills passed. The question on everyone’s mind—often voiced at task force meetings—was whether these measures were too timid, too little, too late, to save the Residents.
The brightest aspect of J Pod’s return to the Salish Sea (the inland waters around the San Juans and the archipelago along southern Vancouver Island) this past week is that they looked good. There was even a glimmer of hope in the shape of a new calf.
Deborah Giles, a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology and the science and research director for the organization Wild Orca, has been out on the water in her permitted research vessel with the orcas this week, gathering scat samples with the help of a dog. As someone who has been monitoring this population for years, she was relieved by what she saw.
“They actually look better than they have in the past,” she said. “Like, yesterday they stopped sleeping—they were socializing and resting, with a little bit of foraging but not much. By and large, they look pretty dang good.”
Perhaps the most encouraging sign is a new calf—designated J56, it’s still too young to count as a member of the population (calf mortality is so high among resident orcas that calves are not counted until they are a year old). But this one is special.
“She is such a pest,” says Giles, laughing. “She has a lot of energy. … It seems like she pesters her family to play with her. She is often awake and active when her family is trying to rest. Eventually one or more of her family, or young females without calves of their own yet, will play with her, lift her out of the water, much like we throw our own young kids up in the air. She is very gregarious. And tenacious.”
Giles has been participating in the governor’s Orca Recovery Task Force as a member of two of its working groups. She says that, while it’s been mostly productive, the intensity seems to have waned. Still, she’s happy that Inslee took the initiative.
“I have to give credit where it’s due, and I feel a lot of the interest and the dialogue we are having would not have occurred without the governor’s task force,” she says. “That needs to be recognized, that having a political person try and rally the troops has drawn attention to these whales in a way that we’ve long needed.”
The task force generally proceeded with good-faith cooperation on all sides in the summer of 2018, but it was distracted and nearly derailed at the end by the insertion by whale watch opponents of a proposal to institute an indefinite but “temporary” moratorium on all whale watch operations around the Southern Residents. When the task force reported its first draft in September 2018, the proposal was included, and eventually legislation was drafted to create the moratorium. However, it was defeated in committee.
Ken Balcomb, the longtime SRKW scientist who oversees the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, was scathing in his assessment of the task force’s recommendation in a Seattle Times op-ed, particularly after moratorium advocates cited his research to justify the measure.
“I do not know whether it is a diversionary tactic encouraged by special interests,” he wrote, “but I am particularly dismayed to see that the findings of my 42 years of study of the whales are being misused to support emotional and irrational anti-whale watching agendas that realistically are of no benefit to the survival of these beloved Pacific Northwest icons. Such emotions have not added one more fish to the ecosystem, and never will.”
For researchers like Giles, the most urgent question is how to get enough fish into these waters to feed the Southern Residents—all of them. Her visits with J Pod were shadowed by this reality.
“I’m looking through the photos I took yesterday and they look really good,” she says. “They were socializing, and that means something. It means they’re not spending all of their time searching for food.”
The problem is not what she was seeing, but who she wasn’t. In addition to the J Pod—which numbers only 24 whales—two other pods, designated K and L, are significant parts of the Southern Resident population, and they have not appeared in the Salish Sea all summer long. “We don’t have the numbers,” Giles says. “All we have is members of J pod. We need to have members of everybody.”
Their absence points to once-again low Chinook numbers in these waters, which apparently are enough to sustain the J Pod but not the rest of the population. “The downside is that presumably there’s not enough fish here for Ks and Ls to come in. That’s really what we should be seeing. This time of year we should be having numbers of all three pods, but that is absolutely not the case.”
Balcomb is fond of recalling an old coastal Native American adage: “No fish, no blackfish.” What’s becoming clear is that the Residents have found ways to sustain themselves without Salish Sea fish; but if the fish can return, then so can the whales.
It would be possible, in reality, to recover these populations if the government devoted the right resources and developed an effective plan of attack. What have been taken instead, however, are federal and state half-measures that have added up to a failed salmon-recovery program, especially on the Columbia River, which historically has produced the lion’s share of salmon along the Pacific Coast generally.
The region’s politicians, critics point out, have long known what to do. They’ve just lacked the courage to do it.
That’s because the key first step in recovering the orcas’ salmon involves one of the state’s oldest, and most potent, political footballs in its long-raging culture wars: a phalanx of four dams four hundred miles inland from the San Juans, keys to the salmon runs on a river that doesn’t even pour into Puget Sound, the Columbia.
Those politics, in the end, may spell doom for the endangered orcas of the Salish Sea. Even the nearest solution, under the bravest of scenarios, will take years to bring them more salmon.
For the Southern Resident orcas, time has just about run out.
Next: Dammed to extinction