May 16, 2017
Shawn Cantrell

Puget Sound and Southern Resident orcas are under increased threat from an administration seeking to cut critical programs and funding aimed at their protection. 

The waters of Puget Sound that hug the coastline of northwestern Washington, often conjure up images of majestic orcas breaking through the crystalline surface to the amazement of eager onlookers. This breath-taking display that brings tourists to the area and has forever captured the affection of many locals, is sadly, becoming a rarer sight to see. This is what compelled me to travel from my home here in Washington state to our nation’s capital in Washington D.C. to voice my concern to lawmakers for the future of Puget Sound and the wildlife it sustains.

I grew up in Washington state and Puget Sound and the surrounding mountains and rivers are near and dear to my heart. This amazing estuary—the second largest in the U.S.—is the core of our region’s economy, drawing in tourists from all over the world, and supporting an amazing, diverse ecosystem. From sea stars to giant pacific octopuses, salmon to grey whales, countless wildlife species depend on Puget Sound. There is perhaps no other species more emblematic to these waters than the orca and specifically, the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas.

The Southern Resident Orca—A Species on the Brink

Unlike most orcas that hunt seals and other marine mammals, Southern Residents evolved alongside Pacific salmon and became highly-specialized fish hunters. For hundreds of years, they feasted on large, fatty Chinook salmon, the largest Pacific salmon species. With its large Chinook runs that spawn throughout its numerous tributaries, Puget Sound has for generations been crucial habitat for the Southern Resident orca.

Sadly, as Puget Sound became more developed, Chinook salmon populations sharply declined, pollution has become widespread in the Sound, and increased vessel traffic causes more noise disturbance underwater. As a result, Southern Resident orcas are faced with a stark reality.  They continue to frequent their traditional hunting grounds and find fewer and fewer fish; more vessel traffic makes it harder to use their echolocation to acquire their food; and, much of the fish they do consume is heavily contaminated from pollution (toxics like DDT and PCBs) in the Sound. Their numbers have decreased at an alarming rate and recent population census data estimates just 78 remain in the wild.

All hope is not lost for this singularly Pacific creature. Fortunately, there are countless, committed individuals working to not only make Puget Sound a safer and healthier place for orcas and salmon, but for all the wildlife and people that depend on it.

Restoring Puget Sound

Many of the projects underway to restore and protect habitat and wildlife in Puget Sound rely on funding from federal agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Both of these agencies have awarded grants to state and local governments, tribes, universities, and nonprofits to restore salmon habitat, reduce toxic runoff into Puget Sound, and mitigate the impact of vessel disturbance. These programs are essential to recovering orcas, but the Trump administration has proposed completely eliminating them.

With only 78 individuals left, it is essential that federal funding for programs that can save our Southern Resident orcas be preserved and even strengthened where necessary. This is why Defenders works closely with federal decision makers and agency representatives and why I traveled to Washington D.C. two weeks ago to speak on behalf of Washingtonians. I was part of a coalition of conservation groups, Native American tribes, local governments, and business interests advocating for robust funding of the critical programs that can help recover orcas, such as Sea Grant, the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, and the EPA Puget Sound Program.

Sea Grant is a NOAA program that provides funding, in collaboration with universities, to research issues in marine resources and conservation. In Washington, the University of Washington houses the program and has studied the causes for high Chinook salmon mortality rates in Puget Sound. It has also funded research providing evidence that orcas are filled with toxic chemicals, which can impact their health. President Trump’s “skinny” budget proposal for FY 2018 released earlier this year, proposed eliminating the Sea Grant program altogether.

The Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund (PCSRF) is another NOAA program that the Trump administration has proposed to eliminate. The PCSRF was created in 2000 to provide grant money to western states to restore and conserve salmon populations and their habitat. To date, there have been roughly 3,500 projects in Washington alone, that have restored over 34,000 acres of salmon habitat.

The agency hardest hit by the Trump administration’s proposed cuts is the EPA. Under the “skinny” budget proposal, the EPA’s budget would be slashed by 31% and the agency would be unable to fund many of its programs, including the Puget Sound National Estuary Program and Geographic Program. With funding from these two programs, local and tribal governments have been able to protect nearshore and riparian habitat to support salmon and install rain gardens that reduce toxic runoff. This money also supports the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency that coordinates the efforts of partners and agencies working to protect Puget Sound and its wildlife.

Not only are these programs helping to recover endangered orcas in Puget Sound, they also support the local economies. According to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, investments in Sea Grant result in an 854% return, and for every $1 million spent on the PCSRF, 17 jobs are created and $1.86 million is generated in added economic activities. Funding from the EPA has also supported countless local jobs and research initiatives. Projects funded by the EPA and NOAA have helped us understand the complexity of Puget Sound’s ecosystem, are making tangible improvement to the Sound, and support local jobs. Cutting these and other critical programs is irresponsible, could have devastating impacts for Puget Sound and could spell extinction for Southern Resident orcas.

The good news is that Congress’ recent budget deal to fund the government through the end of fiscal year 2017, does include funding for many of these programs; unfortunately, the deal is merely a stopgap and is only good until the end of September. For next year’s budget, these vital programs will again be on the chopping block. Without renewed funding, we will lose these programs and our ability to implement on-the-ground solutions that can preserve and protect Puget Sound, Southern Resident orcas and all the wildlife that call this unique ecosystem home. Defenders will continue to advocate for these programs to ensure that the waters of Puget Sound are kept free of dangerous toxics, that they are quieted from the disturbance of too many seafaring vessels, and that they once again teem with salmon to feed the endangered population of orcas for generations to come. And you can help by letting your members of Congress know that you support robust funding for Puget Sound protection and recovery efforts in the federal budget.

The month of June is orca awareness month! Join Defenders and other organizations in celebrating this charismatic whale with events happening across the country.

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Shawn Cantrell headshot

Shawn Cantrell

Vice President, Field Conservation Programs
Shawn Cantrell oversees the work of Defenders in the field.

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