New orca offers hope as experts race to save PNW’s most iconic residents

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In late 2019, Washington issued nearly 50 recommendations aimed at keeping southern resident killer whales, also known as orcas, away from the brink of extinction.

Three groups – or pods – make up the southern residents: pods J, K and L. After the recent birth of J-59, the population is said to be 74 fewer than the 88 orcas that existed when the group was first recorded. listed as endangered in 2005.

Killer whales face many problems, but three main issues stand out: lack of prey, noise pollution, and contaminants reaching Puget Sound.

FOLLOW-UP RECOMMENDATIONS

In the latest state follow-up update, action has been taken on all but two recommendations, the most important of which was a recommendation to suspend viewing of southern resident killer whales. Instead, new rules have been created to give orcs more space.

“Not suspending viewing was a choice made by the governor and the legislature at the time,” said Julie Watson, WDFW’s killer whale policy manager. “They said, ‘Let’s take some time to look at these other things and learn and go from there. “”

Laws have been updated to require ships to stay 300 meters from killer whales and at least 400 meters from their paths. A variety of agencies – both state, federal and binational – have also worked to educate people through the “Be Whale Wise” program.

More controversial recommendations considered early, such as breaking the lower Snake River dams, never materialized. Instead, a recommendation to establish a stakeholder process for discuss the possibility of breaking/removing the roadblocks was made. A final report from the Office of Financial Management examining the impacts was released in March 2020, and further discussions have continued.

MAJOR CHANGES

One of the notable changes since the guidelines were issued has been the increase in the number of hatchery fish being introduced into local streams and rivers.

The state, tribes and utilities received $13.5 million in 2019 to increase hatchery production. According to the Governor’s Office of Salmon Recovery, this work will result in an additional 26 million smolts – or young salmon – each year.

Since then, the legislature has approved additional funding to improve facilities and further increase production.

“That’s the key to keeping it all going,” said Brodie Antipa, hatchery operations manager for Fish & Wildlife during a recent tour of a facility along Soos Creek. “Fishing, sport, tribal, feeding the orca – it’s all here, that’s where it all starts in the hatchery.”

Antipa walked FOX 13 around the newly renovated facility this month – not too long ago they bred around 4.2 million smolts in a year. The number has now risen to 6.5 million.

It’s a very different process, as the fish they raise are an endangered species in their own right.

Funding from the state, tribes, and federal governments is essentially used to nurture one endangered species, which will eventually nurture another. It is one of the only examples of such work in the United States.

For those on the ground floor of the work – like Antipa – it’s a reminder that we are playing a major role in the decline of the Pacific Northwest’s iconic species. Like killer whales, humans have played an outsized role in salmon decline: population growth has led to habitat destruction, contaminant runoff that transfers from salmon to killer whales, not to mention our impact on the climate.

“If it weren’t for the hatchery, there wouldn’t be much left in this cove,” Antipa said. “We are constantly adapting to changing water quality. In drought years when we have hot water here, it is not uncommon for us to reach 70 degrees, which is very difficult to raise salmon in 70 degree water effect on the way we do business here We move more and more fish offsite during the summer period when we are subjected to drought and very hot water.

HABITAT RECOVERY

Hatchery fish aren’t the only success story. A great deal of time, energy and money has gone into restoring the natural salmon runs.

According to Galuska, the legislature is trying to expand the work through various types of funding — like the Office of Recreation and Conservation, which invested $200 million in salmon habitat restoration over the past two years. recent years only.

That said, the challenge does not get easier with each passing year. Population growth and a changing planet are constantly shifting goals.

“We’re dealing with climate change and Seattle’s growing population quite a bit,” she said. “Seattle was the number one growth city in 2020.”

SHIP NOISE

Ensuring the orcas have fish to eat is one thing, but whether they can find the fish is another matter.

Southern residents rely on echolocation to hunt. Their abilities are so precise that they can tell salmon species apart by sound alone, allowing southern residents to target Chinook salmon, their favorite prey.

Killer whales essentially send out a series of clicks (an example from NOAA can be found here). When the sound wave hits an object, it bounces off a whale, allowing it to detect fish up to 500 feet away.

Puget Sound, however, makes this skill difficult as locals and businesses create noise that disrupts southern residents’ ability to hunt – and new research suggests that females are more likely to abandon prey when their grounds hunt are too noisy.

RELATED: Scientists deploy buoy in Puget Sound to measure noise and risk to orcas

“We know that female southern resident killer whales need to find and capture food, so they can meet their nutritional needs for both gestation and lactation,” Watson explained. “We are concerned that they are disproportionately affected and more likely to give up trying to find food when boats are nearby.”

Perhaps the biggest change underway in terms of noisy waters is the launch of Quiet Sound – a new effort to implement ship noise reduction initiatives. The work is just getting started, but the long-term goal is to better understand the acoustics created by large commercial vessels and how best to reduce the negative effects on killer whale hunting.

“The next steps will be to come up with some real sound calming concepts,” Galuska said. “Part of that will be technology – through private industry, maritime industry – and that takes time. It takes time and effort and funding to do all of these things. I think we we will look to this group to see what ideas and innovations they can come up with.”

HOPE FOR FUTURE ORCS

Despite the challenges, there is a sense of hope when speaking with those closest to this work.

Galuska noted that we’ve never seen the resources in terms of money, or the collaboration that we’re seeing right now with state, local, and tribal governments in addition to federal funding and nonprofits.

No one can flip a switch. Orca recovery has many moving parts: salmon recovery, habitat restoration, vessel noise reduction, contaminant reduction and all before an already stressed species gets too far.

Yet no one seems ready to give up.

“While you may not see an immediate upside tomorrow, I think we’re all here for the long haul,” Galuska said. “We are not going to stop moving forward and hoping that we can recover this endangered species.”

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