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Expert skeptical of Washington state’s orca-saving proposal

(NOAA Fisheries/Vancouver Aquarium via AP, File)

Washington is poised to save the orcas common to Puget Sound. But one expert is critical of the state’s approach to the problem.

“The question is: What’s the problem and what’s the solution?” Ray Hilborn told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “And I have to say, I’m a bit skeptical about much of the discussion that has been raised.”

Hilborn is a professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences at the University of Washington. There are many reasons for his skepticism, but a big part of it is that the conversation around the problem has missed the mark on many key points.

“It’s almost certainly multiple causes for the decline of Southern Resident Killer Whales, but what I haven’t heard in the discussion is pointing out that Northern Resident Killer Whales, which also depend on Chinook salmon, are doing just fine. There are probably 5-6 times more of them than the Southern residents. They are growing at a reasonable rate. And they are feeding on, to the same extent, the same Chinook salmon as the Southern residents are eating.”

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But that’s just one point. Hilborn points to a range of issues — from the food source, to pollution, to climate change — that has added up to the decline of the Southern Resident Orcas. It is these orcas, or killer whales, that Washington Governor Jay Inslee recently proposed $1.1 billion to save. The funds are the result of recommendations of an orca task force. They are aimed at a long list of actions, such as salmon habitat recovery, repairing culverts, and pumping out more fish from hatcheries.

Chinook salmon

Much of the focus has been on the Chinook salmon out of the Columbia River. But Hilborn argues that the Southern Resident Orcas don’t eat a lot of those fish. According to him, most of the Chinook for Puget Sound’s orcas come from rivers in British Columbia.

“The dominant, most important food item appears to be Fraser River salmon, not Columbia River salmon,” Hilborn said. “Fraser River-bound Chinook salmon have been declining, but there are no dams on the Fraser River. I think the weight of evidence for the decline of Chinook salmon certainly on the Fraser River and in general, is climate change — it’s been getting warmer, that’s bad for our fish — and the growth of marine mammal populations.”

Those marine mammal populations include seals, sea lions, and the Northern Resident Orcas.

“Northern Resident Killer Whales eat far more Chinook salmon than the commercial or recreational harvest,” Hilborn said. “So the biggest competitor for adult Chinook salmon is Northern Resident Killer Whales.”

Pinnepeds, like sea lions or seals, are most recently at the center of attention. Multiple dead sea lions have washed up on the shores of Puget Sound. Hilborn says that the population of seals and sea lions has roughly grown by 10-fold over the past 30 years. They eat a lot of Chinook and Coho salmon.

The water

Professor Hilborn notes that the Southern Resident Orcas also carry high amounts of toxins from their environment. That could also be a major factor in their decline. Reducing toxins is also part of Inslee’s $1.1 billion plan to save the killer whales.

“Almost certainly, to some extent (yes, people are to blame),” Hilborn said. “I don’t think anyone has come up with a way to get all the chemical load out of Puget Sound to clean it up. It’s already in the water, it’s in the sediments. I don’t know that there is a solution to that.”

Most of these chemicals that orcas carry are “historical” Hilborn said, likely from industry that is no longer polluting the water.

Inslee’s plan further proposes to set up a task force to study potential impacts of removing dams on the Snake River, which are under federal authority. Removing dams will likely have a “very, very small effect on abundance of Chinook salmon in the Columbia River.”

“In fact, the most recent thing I saw from NOAA is that there would be an initial decline because most of the fish we have in the Columbia now are hatchery origin,” Hilborn said. “The hatcheries on the Snake River are funded by the dams, and if the dams would be taken down, those hatcheries would stop putting fish out. So there would probably be a build up of wild fish, but it would take five, 10, or 15 years for that to compensate for the decline in hatchery production.”

Climate change

While salmon in the region might be on the decline, salmon elsewhere could be benefiting from the warming globe.

“There is no question the world is getting warmer,” Hilborn said. “… I work on salmon in Bristol Bay a lot, and global warming has been good for those species. The Alaskan salmon tend to do better in warm years and worse in cold years. They are at the northern end of the range for the species. We have a longer growing season, the ice goes out earlier, and we had a record return, the best since 1900 when we started keeping records.”

“(Salmon populations) are dropping around here because we are at the southern end of the range,” he said. “But there are more Pacific salmon in the Pacific Ocean right now than any time in history, since we’ve been able to estimate it … all the science estimates that we have more Pacific salmon now than we’ve ever had. The problem is they are not Chinook, Coho, and steelhead in Washington state … but Pink, Sockeye, and Chum over the last 10 years have been in record abundance in the Pacific.”

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