November 9, 2017
Robb Krehbiel

Last week, Puget Sound got some bad news.

According to the latest State of the Sound, the biennial report that tracks the progress towards recovery, the goal of restoring Puget Sound by 2020 will not be met – not by a long shot. Untreated, polluted stormwater runoff continues to flow into Puget Sound, Chinook salmon runs have not recovered and the highly endangered Southern Resident orcas are slipping closer to extinction. With just 76 individuals, the Southern Resident orca population is the lowest it has been in over 30 years and is one of the most endangered marine mammal populations in the world. The situation is dire, and without immediate action, we stand to lose the most iconic and beloved species that defines Puget Sound and the greater Salish Sea ecosystem.

The Salish Sea Ecosystem

Southern Resident orcas need healthy and abundant Chinook salmon throughout their range. Unlike other orcas that visit the Salish Sea, Southern Residents hunt salmon, not marine mammals. These highly social and intelligent animals evolved to hone in on big, fatty Chinook salmon, and until relatively recently, there was more than enough salmon to go around. The Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia, used to support millions of spawning Chinook salmon. These salmon runs were the foundation upon which the entire ecosystem was built, and dozens of tribes and First Nations living along the coast also thrived because of the salmon. Sadly, development in floodplains, habitat destruction, dams and other factors slowly caused Chinook salmon runs to collapse. Southern Resident orcas were suddenly left with fewer fish to eat. Today, orcas are starving as they desperately search for food and nourishment.

The collapse of Chinook salmon populations is a story of “a death by 1,000 cuts.” Researchers have identified another factor that further stresses and suppresses Chinook salmon recovery: pollution. Entering the Salish Sea from many different sources, chemicals are toxic to the ecosystem.

Spoiling the Salish Sea

In the water, old, derelict vessels that have been abandoned by their owners can leak out disastrous quantities of oil, lubricant and other harmful substances used to construct the vessel or in the cargo onboard. These chemicals can injure or kill marine mammals, fish, waterfowl and other aquatic life. They contaminate aquatic lands, nearby shorelines and water quality. Creosote treated wood pilings, which used to support old docks and mooring facilities, also taint the Salish Sea. Coal tar creosote, a substance containing up to 10,000 chemicals, was commonly used to protect wooden support structures from decaying in the water. While many of these structures are no longer in use, the creosote pilings that once supported them remain, leaching out highly toxic chemicals that have been shown to be cardiotoxic, deforming developing hearts and inhibiting proper heart contractions in fully formed hearts. Exposure of salmon eggs to low levels of these chemicals causes health problems, including deformities, in developing salmon, meaning fewer adults return to spawn. Juvenile salmon migrating through urban estuaries are exposed to the chemicals released from creosote pilings, resulting in reduced disease resistance and changes in growth and metabolism. 

The largest source of pollution in the Salish Sea is polluted stormwater runoff. Stormwater is rainfall and snowmelt that flow over the landscape, gathering chemicals along the way. In many Western Washington communities, stormwater flows from our roofs and yards, into our streets, and directly into Puget Sound. Other communities send stormwater to treatment plants first, but during times of heavy rain or snow fall, these systems can overflow, releasing the stormwater into the Sound, untreated. While there is much we still don’t fully understand about the effect this chemical mixture has on organisms, it is clearly lethal to salmon. Salmon placed in collected stormwater experience 100 percent mortality within hours. Unlike derelict vessels and creosote pilings, stormwater comes from everywhere, making it a massive and difficult source of pollution to mitigate.


All of this pollution contributes to the degradation of critical salmon habitat and has been shown to impact salmon at almost every stage of their life. The salmon that remain are highly contaminated – the Salish Sea is home to some of the most polluted Chinook salmon on the west coast. These salmon have been found to contain banned toxics like DDT and PCBs, cocaine, synthetic hormones and prescription drugs at dangerously high levels. As Southern Resident orcas consume the few remaining Chinook salmon left in the Salish Sea, they are also consuming all of those pollutants, slowly building up toxics in their bodies through bioaccumulation. The more salmon an orca consumes, the more toxic chemicals it consumes, resulting in a buildup of toxics. Bioaccumulation is particularly harmful for animals with long lifespans, like orcas, that accumulate toxics throughout their life and store them in their fat. At the top of the Salish Sea’s food chain, Southern Resident orcas accumulate incredibly high levels of pollutants. As a result, Southern Resident orcas are considered the most contaminated marine mammals in the world.

The pollution building up in Southern Residents impacts the health of each individual. Several of the chemicals found in orcas have been linked to severe health problems in marine mammals, including reproductive impairments, skeletal abnormalities, immune system disruption, endocrine disruption, liver damage, thyroid dysfunction and certain types of cancers. The problem of toxic contamination in Southern Residents is further exacerbated by the lack of salmon. During lean times, all marine mammals rely on the fat stored in their blubber to give them the energy they need. Sadly, Southern Resident orcas are forced to rely on their blubber all too often. This fat is filled with pollution, and as the whales metabolize their fat reserves, they flood their bodies with these toxics. Even worse, nursing mothers use their toxic fat to make milk for their newborn calves. A recent study showed that the chemical load in a first-time mother orca is extremely high and decreases with each subsequent birth. By the time the whale has a low contamination level, the female may have experienced several births and calf deaths, effectively shortening a female’s reproductive ability by five or more years. In a slow-to-reproduce and already depleted population, this significantly affects the future of Southern Resident orcas.

An Emergency Response

Preventing the extinction of Southern Resident orcas requires an emergency response from us, and action needs to be taken from individual lifestyle changes to greater investments from governments (local, state, and federal). Fortunately, Washington’s Governor, Jay Inslee, has recently called for a response that will require a variety of actions.  And reducing toxic pollution in the Salish Sea should be one of them. By removing sources of pollution, like derelict vessels and creosote pilings, and reducing the amount of stormwater runoff entering the Salish Sea, we can both increase the number of salmon available for orcas and reduce the bioaccumulating toxic chemicals.

We know that our orcas are sick and starving. Defenders know what the problems are, and we know how to solve them. Efforts to clean up the Salish Sea are already underway in Washington, and with bold leadership from Governor Inslee and other leaders throughout the state, we can expedite clean-up efforts and prevent Southern Resident orcas and their salmon prey from disappearing forever.

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Robb Krehbiel

Robb Krehbiel

Northwest Representative
Robb Krehbiel is the Northwest Representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Seattle where he works to conserve imperiled species across the region, including grizzly bears and orcas, and their habitat through landscape-level planning.

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