SOUNDOFF: Orcas' food, lives endangered

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced in June it has decided to not list the Southern Resident orcas under the Endangered Species Act, despite a steep population decline and the chance the whales could die out within decades. The Southern Residents have lost 20 percent of their population in the past six years.

Resident orcas are in serious trouble. They need our help, and we know enough now to start helping them. Puget Sound’s killer whales are sporadically starving due to historic low runs of salmon, their essential food source. Puget Sound Chinook salmon, believed to be the primary food of the Southern residents, have been listed as threatened under the ESA since 1999.

Orcas have been accumulating poisons for decades. Periodic starvation forces them to rely on energy stored in their blubber, where toxins are lodged, compounding damage to immune and reproductive systems. The very young receive massive toxic loads directly from their mothers’ milk, disrupting early growth and development.

We’ve not been kind to these whales. Orca were shot at and captured for display in marine parks for decades, cutting the population nearly in half and making recovery or even survival more difficult. One catastrophic oil spill could decimate the Southern residents, as occurred with the Alaskan AB pod after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Increasing noise pollution by military ships, freighters, tankers and boats of all kinds may also disrupt the whales’ foraging and communication.

We are disappointed that NMFS has found a technical loophole to dodge the hard issues. According to NMFS: “NMFS concluded that these whales met the ‘discreteness’ criterion, but that they did not meet the test of significance, and thus were not found to be a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) under the ESA.” The rationale for this evasive maneuver is that “other resident or offshore animals could potentially re-colonize the current range of Southern Residents if that population should die off.” We find two tragic errors in this approach.

First, the whales’ habitat itself is endangered. The fish are depleted, the water is poisoned. New immigrants would only suffer the same consequences as the current residents.

Second, the Southern Resident orca community is culturally significant, just as any ethnic community, from Inuit to American, is culturally significant. They communicate using vocal traditions analogous to language. They share knowledge of this marine ecosystem, life from rivers and tides, processions of salmon runs. They have complex relationships among pods and subpods. They have established a way of life here. Other orcas could try to learn the ways of these orcas, but they wouldn’t have collective memories.

The orcas we have come to know that make up J, K and L pods cannot simply be replaced. Generations of cultural cohesion result in genetic uniqueness, which NMFS admits, with this disclaimer: “Southern Residents can be genetically differentiated from other resident killer whales, but it is unclear whether the magnitude of these differences should be considered ‘marked.’ “ We believe the differences are extremely “marked.”

Rather than look objectively at the overwhelming evidence that the Southern Resident orcas are loaded with toxic chemicals and are intermittently starving, NMFS will solicit more public comment, and promises to review the whales’ status within four years. NMFS will also start the process to declare the stock “depleted,” which will allow “improving whale-watching guidelines.” That’s the equivalent of doing nothing. NMFS justifies this refusal to act by claiming ignorance about the causes of the alarming decline in the orca community that inhabits our inland waters. “The bottom line on causes is we don’t know the answer,” said Bob Lohn, National Marine Fisheries regional administrator.

NMFS seems afraid to do its job. We understand the political challenges involved in addressing these issues, but we are concerned that NMFS will take no new action to protect or restore salmon habitat to help the whales. No new action to protect vital shoreline habitat needed by herring, sand lance or surf smelt, vital prey for salmon. No action to prevent the discharge of toxic chemicals into Puget Sound or to clean up existing hot spots. No action to dismantle the Elhwa dams that block salmon from hundreds of miles of old growth watershed in the very heart of orca habitat. No action to safeguard against oil spills. No action to help bring back the one surviving captive from this community, a female of reproductive age on display in Miami. No endorsement that these environmental insults have any impact on the whales.

Our government seems prepared to let the whales die, one by one. We can’t wait for NMFS to act. It’s up to citizens, organizations and local governments to do what needs doing. We call upon those who feel joy watching orcas or simply knowing that a community of whales live and socialize in these waters, to set aside and renew the whales’ essential ecosystem. We surround the orcas with our cities, towns and homes. We thrill at the sight of them. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations of orcas and humans to take maintain and improve vital natural habitat. We need to clean up our act, clean up our watersheds and bring back the fish.

Susan Berta and Howard Garrett are founders of Orca Network, based in Greenbank.

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