The population of the resident Salish Sea orcas has been a big concern for many around the Pacific Northwest the last several years. These animals are an iconic and vital part of the Salish Sea but their numbers have been dwindling over the decades. Currently, only 74 resident orcas call the Salish Sea home, including Tahlequah, the orca who carried her dead calf for weeks after it died.
Tahlequah’s grief for her lost calf earlier this year is a stark reminder of many things. One, that orcas are incredibly emotional and intelligent. These marine mammals stay in familiar pods during their lives and each pod in different areas have their own ways of communicating. Two, there have been almost no successful births or calves surviving for some resident orcas in years. Three, we as people need to do something to help these animals and the proposed ban, at least in my opinion, doesn’t seem like it’s the best solution at the moment.
- Future of Orcas Takes Center Stage at Salish Sea Conference by Christopher Dunagan, Encyclopedia of Puget Sound
Here’s a bit of background on this proposed ban: to address the dwindling numbers of resident orcas and in conjunction with the Department of Ecology, Governor Jay Inslee set up a task force on this issue in the spring of 2018. Recently, that task force proposed a temporary ban on commercial whale watching tours. The ban would last for 3-5 years and is proposed to help stop the amount of noise in the Salish Sea, as the noises from large boats make it difficult for orcas to hunt and communicate.
I do want to say that I’m not an expert in this field (both science and policy-wise). I have a very shallow background in science and much of my opinion on this situation comes from things I have read on the internet. That said, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the proposed ban. It feels, in part, like an easy solution to dealing with the problems at hand. Do large vessels and boats in the Salish Sea produce noise pollution? Yes and that noise pollution is making it difficult for orcas to hunt for food and communicate with each other. But would this temporary ban on commercial whale watching tours be enough? Isn’t there more we could do? How, for example, are human actions like dams making an impact on salmon populations?
This temporary ban isn’t the first time that a solution for the dwindling resident orca population has been proposed, as seals and sea lions have been blamed by some for the low numbers of Chinook salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Some studies (which you can find below) have found that several marine mammal populations have been eating more Chinook salmon than ever before, which has, in turn, made it more difficult for resident orcas to get the necessary food. According to an article over at the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, the number of Chinook salmon eaten by seals, sea lions, and killer whales increased six-fold between 1975 and 2015, which could be masking the success of Chinook salmon recovery efforts and making it difficult for orcas to eat their primary food source.
- Competing tradeoffs between increasing marine mammal predation and fisheries harvest of Chinook salmon by Brandon E. Chasco, Isaac C. Kaplan, and others. Published at Scientific Reports in November 2017
- Estimates of Chinook salmon consumption in Washington State inland waters by four marine mammal predators from 1970 to 2015 by Brandon E. Chasco, Isaac C. Kaplan, and others. Published at Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences in January 2017
However, David Suzuki recently wrote about the impact that we as humans have on the resident orcas and referenced an opinion piece where Peter Ross and Lance Barrett-Lennard write about how harbor seals and sea lions are an easy scapegoat for a low Chinook salmon population. Suzuki, Ross, and Barrett-Lennard all write about how it’s easy to place the blame on competing predators like seals and sea lions but food webs are complicated. According to these three writers, placing the blame entirely on sea lions and seals isn’t entirely accurate, as our actions as humans have a significant impact on the chinook salmon and the orca populations in the area.
Honestly, I don’t really have an answer to this problem. I’m not a scientist, nor do I have a lot of experience in this area. But this proposed ban, in my very limited opinion, doesn’t seem like it’s the right solution at the moment. The Southern Resident Orcas are dealing with a myriad of issues but the fact that they don’t have enough food seems to be the highest priority and seals aren’t entirely to blame. We, as humans, do have an immense impact on the resident population in ways that everyday people might not realize.
While reading and writing about this topic, photographer Sara Shimazu kept coming to mind. I’ve been following Shiamzu on Instagram for months now, where she shares photos, videos, and stories of the orcas that call the Salish Sea home. She also works for the San Juan Island Whale Watch, a whale watching tour company, and wrote about this decision recently. You can read her own words here but she writes about how this decision from the task force is a feel good one for us humans but not a good one for the orcas.
What do you think about this solution? Let me know in the comments!