Oregon’s Role in Protecting the Southern Resident Orcas
Orcas, or killer whales, are one of the most charismatic and emotion-provoking marine species in the world. They are also one of the apex predators in marine ecosystems, and therefore, an important piece in the ecological web in marine communities. Researchers have, over the years, identified several ecotypes of orcas – populations that are genetically, behaviorally, and/or geographically distinct. Southern resident orcas are both the most urban population of orca in the world, and also the most critically endangered. These orcas are genetically distinct from other populations and have their own culture, behavior, habitat, and dialect.
The southern residents are often thought of as “Puget Sound orcas,” since they usually spend half of the year in the Salish Sea and along the Washington and British Columbia coasts. However, they have deep connections to Oregon as well. Many Oregonians are unaware of the fact that they come down to Oregon waters and rely on salmon from our rivers, especially during the winter months when food availability becomes a critical factor in their well-being. These are Oregon’s orcas, too, and we share in the responsibility of ensuring their survival.
The current plight of the southern residents is very disheartening. There are three pods of southern residents – J, K, L—and combined, there are only 73 of such individuals left in the wild. This is the lowest number in more than 30 years. They have struggled to overcome the challenges created by increased development on land and in the ocean, suffering from a decline in salmon (their primary prey), impacts from toxic contamination, and increased vessel traffic that creates noise pollution which interrupts their echolocation and ability to find fish and communicate with one another.
The health of the orcas is closely linked to availability of salmon, particularly Chinook, their preferred prey. Birth and death rates in the population are correlated with coast-wide Chinook abundance, including those from watersheds here in Oregon. Major rivers and basins like the Columbia and Klamath help provide fish for the orcas, and studies tracking orcas’ movements on the coast show them regularly visiting the mouths of these rivers when the salmon return to migrate to their spawning grounds.
Restoring and protecting salmon habitat and watersheds in Oregon supports healthy salmon runs. However, salmon runs have been severely impacted by dams in the Columbia River Basin. Dams are physical obstructions to salmon runs, cause increased juvenile salmon mortality and limit the success of healthy salmon life cycles from the rivers to the sea and back to the river one last time. As go the salmon, so go the orcas.
Pollution and contaminants in our waters are another main threat to the southern residents. Limiting contaminants entering the water and holding polluters accountable contributes to safe water for orcas, salmon, and people. Mitigating the effects of increasing amounts of vessel traffic traveling in and out of Portland and navigating off our coast protects marine mammals from noise and harassment.
In response to the current fragile status of the southern resident orcas, Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee initiated a Task Force to develop targeted actions for southern resident orca recovery. The final report for year one of the Task Force consisted of a comprehensive list of 36 recommendations, some of which present opportunities for support or direct participation from Oregon, specifically: (a) Increasing the allowable total dissolvable gas (TDG) standards by increasing spill over dams from the current 120% to 125% (here’s a blog that explains the importance of spill standards but in a nutshell TDG signifies the amount of dissolvable oxygen in water that’s available to aquatic species and 125% has been identified as the ideal level for better survival rates of out-migrating salmon); and (b) Engaging directly in a stakeholder process to explore the challenges and opportunities of removing the four lower Snake River dams.
Oregon and Washington must work together to save the southern residents from going extinct. There are some indications there is will to do more in Oregon. Governor Kate Brown has declared June as Orca month in Oregon for several years now, to draw attention to the plight of these mammals. The two states have already started a process to match standards for TDG and ensure flexibility in management to maximize salmon survival. We have seen some steps in the right direction when the two states, along with a few other stakeholder groups, signed an agreement to increase spill and bring TDG in both states to 120% this year and to 125% by 2020. Increasing spill over dams is one of the most effective near-term actions we can take to provide more salmon to orcas. However, this is a short team solution, while we work on long-term salmon habitat restoration by removing the four lower Snake River dams. Washington state’s current budget includes funding to establish a stakeholder forum to discuss and mitigate the impacts of removing the four Lower Snake River dams. As a downstream stakeholder, it is important that Oregon engages in this forum.
Besides coordinating spill standards and participating in the removal of the lower Snake River dams, Oregon also needs to focus removing barriers and obstructions on salmon-bearing waterways, addressing stormwater runoff, and pushing for wildlife-friendly renewable energy development to reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy sources such as dams. If we listed the southern resident population on the Oregon State Endangered Species Act, like our neighbor Washington does, such measures will be prioritized for salmon recovery and orca habitat conservation.
After 2015’s “baby boom” of eight calves (of which only five survived), there were no surviving calves until this year, when both J and L pods each have a new calf. After four long years, it’s a glimmer of hope. But, at the same time there are disheartening images of starved orcas struggling to find food and the recent news of three presumed deaths (one in each pod) this year alone.
It is time for Oregon to step up to the plate and act to ensure that our state contributes to southern resident orca and salmon recovery. The loss of southern residents would have devastating impacts on the ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest as well as on the people who depend on the ocean and river systems for their livelihoods. Oregonians deserve a healthy marine community – for us and our future generations.