An international task force brought together
by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in March this year released a list of proposed
recommendations this week that, if implemented, they hope will revive the
endangered population of Southern Resident Orca whales in northern Washington
and British Columbia.
There are a number of causes for the Orca
decline, but broadly the decline has been due to vessel traffic, contaminants
and lack of prey, and the prey favored by the Orcas is chinook salmon, which
makes up 80 percent of the whales’ diet. The problem is that the number of
chinook available in the inland seas from southeast Alaska to southern Puget
Sound and along the west coast to the Columbia River has also been in decline.
The population of Southern Resident Orcas
dropped to 82 in 2003 and to a 30-year low of 74 in 2005, prompting NOAA
Fisheries to list the population as endangered under the federal Endangered
Species Act. In Canada the whales were listed under the Species at Risk Act in
According to the draft report released Sept.
24, experts believe that, overall, the orcas are in poor condition and
struggling to raise calves. A 2018 study published by the Center for
Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest
Fisheries Science Center and the Center for Whale Research found that up to
two-thirds of Southern Resident orca pregnancies from 2007 to 2014 failed. None
of the Southern Resident calves born in the past three years have survived.
NOAA Fisheries Recovery Plan is at (https://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/publications/protected_species/marine_mammals/killer_whales/esa_status/srkw-recov-plan.pdf).
It details and analyzes potential threats affecting Southern Residents and
outlines an adaptive management approach to recovery strategies addressing each
threat, based on the best available science, the Task Force report says.
The draft Task Force report (https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/SRKWDraftReport_09-24-18.pdf)
is out for public comment until Oct. 7 and the next Task Force meeting is Oct.
17 - 18. Comments will be incorporated into the current draft and the public
will have another opportunity to comment Oct. 24 - 29. Comments can be made at
governor.wa.gov/orcareport by midnight on October 7.
The timeline of next steps is available on the
governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force website (https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/energy-environment/southern-resident-killer-whale-recovery-and-task-force).
The final task force recommendations will be listed in the final report on
November 16, 2018.
According to the report, travelling in three
pods, orcas range from central southeast Alaska to central California but spend
most of the year in the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands and on the outer
coast of Washington and southern Vancouver Island. In pursuit of migrating
salmon, Southern Residents are known to forage farther south in Puget Sound
during the fall and spend time near the Columbia River mouth in winter.
It’s not surprising that many of the potential
recommendations offered in the report have to do with the recovery of chinook
in both Puget Sound and the Columbia River basin. All aimed at chinook salmon
recovery, it has recommendations for both Puget Sound and the Columbia basin
addressing changes at hatcheries and dams, habitat improvements, reductions in
contaminants and predation.
Among the recommendations is support for
stepped up efforts to control sea lions in the Columbia River, along coastlines
and in Puget Sound, as well as a recommendation for the Washington Department
of Fish and Wildlife to reclassify popular non-native gamefish, such as bass,
walleye and catfish, as non-native predatory fish.
Potential predation recommendation number 3
says “The governor should consult with WDFW and the Invasive Species Council
and then support reclassifying nonnative predatory fish (including, but not
limited to, walleye, bass, and catfish) from game fish to invasive species to
allow and encourage removal of these predatory fish in waters containing salmon
or other ESA-listed species. It is currently illegal to "waste" sport
fish and in many rivers/lakes the harvest of these nonnative predators is regulated
by catch limits. Any increase in fishing for these species should not increase
bycatch of salmonids.”
Task Force goals are:
--Between now and 2022, witness evidence of
consistently well-nourished whales and the survival of several thriving young
--By 2028, see the primary indicator of body
condition of the whales (the ratio of head width to body length) remain high
and stable between seasons and across years, regardless of fluctuations in the
West Coast abundance of Chinook, and to see an increase in the population to 84
whales (10 more whales in 10 years).
The report goes on to say that to achieve
these goals, it commits to:
• Restoring sustainable, harvestable chinook
populations across Washington state in accordance with federally approved
salmon recovery plans.
• Reducing the impacts of vessel noise and
disturbance so that the Southern Residents are able to effectively forage, rest
• Reducing the toxicity of the ecosystem to
improve the health of whales and their prey.
More information about the governor's task
force is available online at https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/energy-environment/southern-resident-killer-whale-recovery-and-task-force.
-- CBB, Sept. 14, 2018, “NOAA Fisheries
Studying Nighttime Behavior Of Endangered Killer Whales As Part Of Action Plan”
--CBB, May 11, 2018, “Puget Sound Boaters
Asked To Observe ‘No-Go’ Zone To Protect Foraging Orcas,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440697.aspx
--CBB, March 16, 218, “Washington Governor
Signs Executive Order To Protect Orcas, Chinook Salmon” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440354.aspx
-- CBB, Jan. 15, 2016, “Study: Chinook Salmon
Make Up 80 Percent Of Diet For ESA-Listed Killer Whales In Pacific Northwest” http://www.cbbulletin.com/435857.aspx