A search effort has been underway for J50, as a superpod gathering of J, K and L pod orcas converged in waters near Race Rocks. She was not among them.
By Lynda V. Mapes, Seattle Times environment reporter
September 13, 2018
J50 was presumed dead Thursday after a search for the whale by boat, plane and from shore failed to spot her.
About 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, declared J50 presumed dead. He is on contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as the keeper of demographic data of the southern resident population of orca whales.
But NOAA and partners helping in the search have not given up hope, said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the agency.
“We have had a huge amount of help today, and it is really important that if she is there that we find her,” Milstein said. “We certainly have not determined at this point that we are giving up. And we are determining that day by day, we are not setting a timeline.”
A massive search was mobilized for J50 all day Thursday on both sides of the water. The search in Washington waters included a Coast Guard helicopter, several NOAA researchers in separate boats, Soundwatch, the boater education nonprofit, and multiple whale-watch vessels, as well as members of the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network. In Canada, the Marine Mammal Rescue vessel, the M Charles midwater patrol vessel, Straitwatch, a nonprofit, a Coast Guard helicopter, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans enforcement airplane and a floatplane all were deployed.
“The message brought by J50, and by J35 and her dead calf a few weeks ago, is that the southern resident killer whales are running out of reproductive capacity and extinction of this population is looming,” Balcomb wrote in a news release, “while the humans convene task forces and conference calls that result in nothing, or worse than nothing, diverting attention and resources from solving the underlying ecological problems that will ultimately make this once-productive region unlivable for all.”
Last seen Sept. 7, the 3-year-old whale was not with her family on several sightings in local waters around the San Juan Islands, including a superpod gathering Thursday in which some 60 whales from J, K, and L pod were together near Race Rocks. However, J50 was not among them.
Balcomb said he and others with the center had looked hard for the whale on multiple days this week with no results, and doesn’t expect further efforts to turn up a live J50 to be successful. “They can look all they want. They can look til Christmas,” he said.
J50 would be the second death in the critically endangered family of southern resident orca whales in less than two months. Tahlequah, or J35, brought worldwide sympathy as she swam more than 1,000 miles for 17 days through the trans-boundary waters of the Salish Sea, clinging to her dead calf, which lived for only a half-hour. The southern residents have not had a successful pregnancy in three years.
NOAA has plans underway for a rescue of J50, which include taking her into temporary captivity for rehabilitation.
J50 had a tough life from the start. Always small for her age, she got the name Scarlet from deep rake marks near her dorsal fin, a sign, researchers believe, that she was pulled out of her mother by other whales in a midwifed birth because she was in a breech position.
She was known for her spectacular breaches, as many as 40 in a row, sometimes with her body in an arch.
But while always small for her age, J50 became the object of scientists’ concern as over the course of 2017 and this year she lost more and more weight. She became so emaciated it became increasingly hard for her to swim and hold her head up, as the fat pad in her cranium shrank, reducing her buoyancy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) mounted a progressively more intense effort involving veterinarians and biologists from Canada and the U.S. to save her.
First, they sampled her breath, then darted her with antibiotics, then launched a practice feeding effort, sluicing live chinook to her from the back of a boat, with the hope of giving her medicated fish if she would eat fish put right in front of her. She did not.
Finally this week, the agency announced a plan to capture the whale and take her into temporary captivity for assessment and, if possible, rehabilitation since all efforts to treat her in the wild had failed. The agency said it would act immediately if the whale stranded — turned up on a beach, or was unable to swim. Debate swirled over whether the agency should act, or why it hadn’t acted sooner, and the ethics of such extreme intervention.
J50 was the first of the “baby boom” among the southern residents that caused so much celebration in late 2014. Of the 11 babies born between December 2014 and January 2016, only four now are known to still be alive. Biologist Deborah Giles, research scientist for the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for the nonprofit Wild Orca, used to often see J50 babysat by her brother, the largest of J pod, with her the smallest. “They were really sweet together,” Giles said.
She was a spunky whale with an independent streak, Giles said, spending time off on her own while her family foraged. She also glided along in the slipstream of her mother, J16. “You could see she just wanted to be lifted up all the time; these whales are very playful, they will lift up their calves and toss them, and the calves will swim over their backs.”
Known for a belly flop achieved by launching her body out of the water, “she just had a really sweet personality,” Giles said.
Public meetings held by NOAA to hear concerns and thoughts from the public about southern resident killer whale recovery are still on schedule for this weekend, including one at 7 p.m. Saturday in Friday Harbor at the high school and 1 p.m. Sunday at the Haggett Hall Cascade Room at the University of Washington in Seattle .
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2515 or email@example.com; on Twitter: @LyndaVMapes. Lynda specializes in coverage of the environment, natural history, and Native American tribes.
August 30, 2018
J pod orca J35, known as Tahlequah, was seen earlier this month without her dead calf, which she had carried for at least 17 days. Her sad display captured the attention of the world and brought attention to the plight of the critically endangered southern-resident killer whales. (Ken Balcomb / Center for Whale Research)
The Canadian government has recently moved to nationalize the expansion of the controversial pipeline. But the ruling Thursday by the Federal Court of Appeals is requiring the government to assess the project's possible impact on southern-resident killer whales, which use transboundary waters of the Salish Sea.
By Lynda V. Mapes, Seattle Times environment reporter
Concern for critically endangered southern-resident killer whales has sunk the approval of Canada’s controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Approval for the expansion was revoked by a federal court in Canada, which ruled Thursday that the effects of the pipeline on orca whales were not addressed and the concerns of First Nations were not adequately considered. The Federal Court of Appeals is requiring the government to redo its consultation with First Nations and assess the impacts of the project on the whales.
The ruling comes after more than a dozen First Nations, the B.C. cities of Vancouver and Burnaby and several environmental groups petitioned the Court of Appeals after the pipeline’s expansion was approved in 2016.
Developer Kinder Morgan issued a statement Thursday stating the company is suspending construction on the project, at least for now.
“We are reviewing the decision with the Government of Canada and are taking the appropriate time to assess next steps,” CEO Ian Anderson said in a prepared statement. “We remain committed to building this project in consideration of communities and the environment, with meaningful consultation with Indigenous Peoples and for the benefit of Canadians. Trans Mountain is currently taking measures to suspend construction-related activities on the Project in a safe and orderly manner.”
The pipeline would run for more than 700 miles — alongside a line that has been in service since 1954 — and would move 890,000 barrels a day from Alberta tar-sands deposits to the coast. A second pipeline is planned to be built from the interior of Canada to the coast at Burnaby to carry tar-sands crude for export. The project was considered not only for jobs, but for better oil prices that Canada hopes to garner in overseas markets.
The decision was a major victory for Canadian First Nations, environmental groups and U.S. tribes that opposed the pipeline expansion. Critically endangered southern-resident killer whales face a sevenfold increase in oil-tanker traffic through their critical habitat if the project is built. Many First Nations also have adamantly opposed construction of the project through their territories.
The Trans Mountain expansion is projected to balloon tanker traffic from about 60 to more than 400 vessels annually as the pipeline flow increases from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day. The tar-sands oil carried by the tankers would be especially disastrous in the event of a spill in the bays and coves and swift currents in the transboundary waters of the Salish Sea because the oil sinks, and comprises an ever-changing mix of chemicals added to the thick oil to make it flow.
Down to just 75 animals, the whale pods that would share the water with the tankers is sliding toward extinction. The whales are threatened by vessel noise underwater, interfering with their ability to hunt, as well as possible pollution from an oil spill.
Canada’s National Energy Board recommended approval of the project, even as it acknowledged it would set back recovery of southern-resident killer whales, a protected species in Canada. The board said the effects of marine traffic were beyond its scope. The court disagreed, sending the project back for reconsideration.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the project — then in May nationalized it in an attempt to ensure the pipeline expansion would be built, despite extensive controversy on both sides of the border. The court decision does not affect Canada’s purchase of the project from Kinder Morgan, Anderson said in his statement.
Kinder Morgan shareholders voted overwhelmingly, 99 percent, to approve the $4.5 billion Canadian (U.S. $3.4 billion) sale of the pipeline to the government shortly after the court decision was announced.
Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau didn’t say whether the government would appeal the court decision, but said it will review the decision to ensure the environment is protected and that it meets obligations to consult with indigenous peoples.
Environmental groups and many First Nations hailed the ruling.
“Smothered by choking wildfire smoke this summer, we’ve experienced a taste of what climate change is bringing. This environmentally destructive project should never have been approved and the Trudeau Government must stop construction immediately,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC).
Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice president of the UBCIC, called the ruling “a major win with impacts that will be felt across the country.”
“Our wild salmon and the orcas that they support are critically under threat. The increased tanker traffic that the … project proposes is entirely unacceptable,” he said.
Some environmental groups said the ruling should give Canada all the reason it needs to walk away from the controversial project for good.
“Today’s decision is a major win for Indigenous Nations and for the environment,” said Greenpeace USA Tar Sands campaigner Rachel Rye Butler. “It has long been obvious that the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project violates Indigenous sovereignty and would cause irreparable harm to our environment and the health of people, while threatening the extinction of the southern-resident orca. It’s time to pull the plug on this project once and for all.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has often repeated his opposition to the project, and did so again Thursday.
“I have made my opposition to this plan clear,” Inslee said in a prepared statement. “This proposed project runs counter to everything our state is doing to fight climate change, protect our endangered southern-resident killer whales and protect communities from the risks associated with increased fossil-fuel transportation … I hope this decision helps to bring this potentially devastating project proposal to a close.”
Washington tribes also celebrated the decision Thursday.
“The proposed pipeline would put more oil on the Salish Sea thereby increasing the threat of damage to our fragile and sacred ecosystem, not only for oil spills but also interference with our fisherman working to maintain our ancient way of life,” said Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Indian Tribe, which along with the Lummi, Tulalip and Swinomish tribes fought the pipeline proposal before the National Energy Board. “Now is the time to invest in the health of our marine waters, as we try to save the orca and the salmon, rather than trying to expand investment in the fossil-fuel industry.”
The ruling handed down Thursday was sweeping and far-reaching. The judge found that the recommendation for approval of the expansion by the National Energy Board was so deficient it could not be relied on.
Missing was any consideration of the effects of marine-shipping traffic from the project, including on threatened orca whales, an exclusion the court found was impermissible: “The Board unjustifiably defined the scope of the Project under review not to include Project-related tanker traffic,” the ruling stated. “The unjustified exclusion of marine shipping from the scope of the Project led to successive, unacceptable deficiencies in the Board’s report and recommendations. As a result, the Governor in Council could not rely on the Board’s report and recommendations when assessing the Project’s environmental effects and the overall public interest,” the ruling stated.
Further, while testimony was taken recording specific concerns of First Nations with the project and its effects on their lands, waters and ways of life, no response was made to address them. That makes the consultation to date inadequate, the judge found. “Canada failed … to engage, dialogue meaningfully and grapple with the real concerns of the Indigenous applicants so as to explore possible accommodation of those concerns,” the ruling stated. “The duty to consult was not adequately discharged.”
Such a strong decision is a major stumbling block for the project, said Jan Hasselman, of Earthjustice in Seattle, who represented Washington tribes in their opposition to the pipeline expansion before the National Energy Board.
“This is a watershed moment for a troubled and controversial project,” Hasselman said. “You have to make a choice. Is it going to be orcas, or is it going to be tar sands?”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2515
A grieving orca mother pushing her dead child. Her pod mate slowly starving.
By Eli Francovich firstname.lastname@example.org
Aug. 9, 2018
Since July 24, these are the scenes coming from the Puget Sound as Tahlequah, a southern-resident orca whale, has pushed the corpse of her newborn baby. It’s continued for weeks attracting world-wide attention as she continues to carry her dead calf. At the same time another member of Tahlequah’s pod, J50, appears to be starving, prompting scientists to mount emergency feeding operations and energizing efforts to save the endangered species.
Spokane-area activists and environmentalists say the drama highlights the political and biological connections between the Columbia River Basin and the Puget Sound.
“It’s certainly connected biologically because we (the Spokane River) were once a huge chinook salmon mill for orca and could be a good one again,” said Jerry White, the Spokane Riverkeeper.
Tahlequah is one of 75 orcas remaining in the Puget Sound, a 30-year-low.
The main issue facing the orcas is a lack of food. They eat primarily Chinook salmon although attention has focused on other stressors as well, including pollution, noise and boats.
White points to efforts by the Colville Tribes and the Upper Columbia United Tribes efforts to reintroduce salmon into the Columbia River.
“They’re doing the heavy lifting,” White said. “That work will provide huge benefit to creatures like the J-pod who subsist only on salmon.”
Additionally, White said strict Environmental Protection Agency standards regulating the amount of polychlorinated biphenyls that may be released into the water must be upheld. Mayor David Condon traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with the EPA last year to argue against the new rules.
Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers proposed reducing the threshold in an appropriations bill amendment at the end of July.
Orcas ingest PCBs when they eat salmon. PCBs have been shown to lead to a weakened immune system and hampered reproduction, among other things.
“It turns out what’s really good for clean water over here is going to be really good for orcas,” White said.
The amended appropriations bill is currently under debate in the Senate.
The Southern Resident Orca Task Force convened Thursday in response to the Puget Sound crisis. Some believe the publicity Tahlequah has received may instigate aggressive action.
“I think it’s game changing,” said Sam Mace, the Inland Northwest Director for Save Our Wild Salmon. “People were there from Ireland and England to testify yesterday. There were 150 members of the public.”
Mace attended the task force meeting which was held in Wenatchee.
The surest way to replenish the chinook salmon runs, according to some scientists and advocates, may be the most difficult: removing the four lower Snake River dams.
There is little political will for a move that would anger farmers and business interests. Neither 5th District Republican incumbent McMorris Rodgers or Democratic challenger Lisa Brown support federal legislation calling for removal of the dams.
Opponents of removal say the dams provide an irreplaceable power source for the northwest and they argue that improving technology and procedures can insure greater chinook salmon survival.
But, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the task force to consider breaching the dams.
“We need to take those dams out,” Mace said. “That is the single biggest bang for the buck thing we can do to get them more food.”
She also emphasized the importance of increasing spills over the dams, which help the fish return to the ocean.
Seeing those connections – between a starving orca and dams along the Snake River – requires education.
“I think people over here need to learn a little bit more about that,” Mace said.
She added, “The salmon connect us to them.
By Mihir Zaveri
Her dead calf resting on her nose, an orca has swum in mourning for more than three days in the Pacific Northwest.
The calf died Tuesday morning, half an hour after it was born off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia, to a 20-year-old whale called J35. It was the first calf known to have been born to the local population, known as the Southern Resident killer whales, since 2015.
“I think she’s just grieving, unwilling at this point to let the calf go, like, ‘Why, why, why?’” said Ken Balcomb, founder and chief scientist for the San Juan Island-based Center for Whale Research, who has tracked the population for more than 40 years.
Southern Resident killer whales, which consist of three different pods, generally stay near British Columbia and Washington State, though some swim north to Alaska and south to California. Researchers fear the decline of the population, which has been besieged by a shrinking gene pool, dwindling food supply and environmental degradation.
Orcas have been shown to have complex social circles, use vocal communication, and exhibit emotions like grief. The whales do sometimes carry the bodies of their dead calves on the water’s surface — another whale was seen doing so in the Pacific Northwest for a few hours in 2010.
But J35’s sad journey, which began near Victoria and has taken her some 150 miles around the San Juan Islands and Vancouver, has continued for an unusually long time, researchers said. It has become a devastating symbol, and an uncannily pointed one, for the whales’ plight.
“We know it happens, but this one is kind of on tour almost, like she’s just not letting go,” Mr. Balcomb said.
J35 was spotted again Friday morning near the southern end of the San Juan Islands, he said. She has largely been balancing the dead calf on her nose.
“Sometimes she bites the flipper and pulls it up,” he said. “The calf sinks because it doesn’t have enough of a blubber layer, and it goes down. She dives down and picks it back up and brings it to the surface.”
Mr. Balcomb’s team first started monitoring the area’s orca population in 1976. They numbered about 70 at the time, after approximately 50 were removed from the wild to become attractions in marine parks.
About 20 years later, after federal protections were implemented, the number of whales in the population peaked at around 100. Then it started to decline again, and today, there are about 75 left.
Given that number, there should be about nine babies born each year, Mr. Balcomb said. Instead, no calves had been born since 2015.
“Once they stop reproducing, they may still swim around here for 50 more years, but there will be no babies,” he said. “Functionally, they will be extinct.”
The population decline, and the lack of new baby whales, has largely been attributed to their primary prey, the King salmon, or Chinook, dying off.
Jan Ohlberger, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, said that the orcas prefer the larger Chinook salmon that are richer in energy, but that they have steadily declined over the last several decades.
He said it could be because of overfishing or climate. “We don’t really know,” he said. “There’s a lot of hypothesizing about that.”
Conservationists have said the whale population has also declined because of inbreeding, noise pollution from ship traffic, and municipal and industrial waste and other chemicals being spilled into the water.
There are more potential threats on the horizon. A recent agreement to expand the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which carries oil from Alberta to British Columbia, would multiply tanker traffic through the orcas’ habitat and expose them to more noise and potential spills. Construction on that pipeline is expected to begin in August.
In May, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington convened the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, a group of state, tribal, provincial and federal officials, to help protect the region’s orcas.
“The loss of a newborn orca calf from our endangered southern resident killer whale population underscores what’s at stake as we work to protect these iconic, beautiful animals from vanishing completely,” Mr. Inslee tweeted this week.
Mr. Balcomb, who sits on the governor’s task force, said J35’s plight has become a rallying point for the efforts to protect the whales.
“Everybody is devastated,” he said. “This is very, very dramatic, saddening, disheartening.”
By Allyson Chiu
For roughly 17 months, she patiently waited. Like many expectant mothers, she looked forward to the day she would get to welcome her baby into the world.
On Tuesday morning, it finally happened. J35, a member of an endangered population of southern resident killer whales, gave birth near Victoria, B.C.
It was a baby girl. She was the first calf to be born alive in three years to the pod known to frequent the waters off the coast of Washington state. In that moment, surrounded by family and swimming by her mother’s side, everything was perfect.
Then, the calf stopped moving, and J35 experienced a mother’s worst horror. She watched her baby die — less than an hour after giving birth to her.
But J35 wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
For hours, she grieved, carrying the dead calf on her head as she swam, Ken Balcomb, founder and principal investigator of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, told The Washington Post. The hours turned into days, and on Thursday she was still seen pushing her baby to the water’s surface.
“That’s not unprecedented, but it’s the longest one that I’ve personally witnessed,” Balcomb said.
Over the past three days, J35 has continued to follow her pod, traveling up to Vancouver, B.C., before returning to San Juan Island on Thursday afternoon, Balcomb said. Each day, she averaged anywhere between 60 to 70 miles, all while working to keep her baby’s 400-pound body afloat.
What J35 is doing is not easy, Deborah Giles, a killer whale biologist with the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, told The Washington Post.
“If you’re a whale or a dolphin, it means that you have to go down and pick that animal up as it’s sinking, bring it to the surface, hold your breath for as long as you can and then basically dump your baby off your head in order just to take a breath,” said Giles, who observed J35 from a research boat Thursday.
J35 managed to do this repeatedly, all while fighting a strong current, Giles said. She added that it was likely the mother orca had also not eaten in days.
The mother’s dedication is a testament to the strong bonds that social animals, such as orcas, form with their offspring.
“It’s real, and it’s raw,” Giles said. “It’s obvious what’s happening. You cannot interpret it any other way. This is an animal that is grieving for its dead baby, and she doesn’t want to let it go. She’s not ready.”
This reaction is similar to how many people feel when they lose a child, Giles said.
“That’s part of what people are picking up on, like ‘My God, I would feel the same way,’ ” she said. “ ’If I had a baby that only took a couple breaths, I wouldn’t want to let it go, either.’"
This type of grieving behavior is not unique to killer whales and has been exhibited by marine mammals including Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Mammalogy. On land, chimpanzees are also known to carry around their dead babies.
While the orca calf’s death is a tragedy for her mother, it has also left researchers “devastated,” Balcomb said.
The southern resident killer whale population is facing an “imminent threat of extinction,” according to a statement from the Center for Whale Research, which has studied the population for more than 40 years. Currently, the clan has 75 whales, down from 98 in 1995, and many of its females will soon be too old to reproduce, Balcomb said. Orcas have a gestation period of 15 to 18 months, which means mothers can give birth only every three to five years.
“This may be the last generation that we get to see of the whales,” Balcomb said. “Their reproductive life is about 25 years. We’ve wasted 20 of those years just having meetings and conference calls and writing reports and wringing our hands.”
Reproduction rates for the population have been dismal. Over the past two decades, about 75 percent of newborns have not survived, researchers say. Since 2015, no pregnancies have produced viable offspring.
A new baby, especially a female capable of reproduction, was exactly what the dwindling whale population needed.
“To lose a calf now, to lose another potential female that could add to the population, is devastating,” Giles said. “This is exactly the opposite of what we need to be happening.”
The whales face three major threats to survival: toxins, ship traffic and a lack of food, specifically Chinook salmon, according to the Center for Whale Research.
There is evidence that the shortage of food has affected the clan’s reproductive success, Balcomb said. Researchers have not determined what caused J35’s baby to die, but Balcomb believes “malnutrition of the mother is most likely.”
In March, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed an executive order to protect orcas and Chinook salmon, both of which are the state’s “signature species.”
The southern resident killer whales were given their name because they would be seen in the area “virtually every day,” as opposed to more transient pods, Balcomb said. In 2006, more than 500,000 people went on whale-watching ships, according to a 2014 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration technical memorandumon the whale watching industry in the Puget Sound. Annually, nearly 200,000 people visit Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island to view the whales from land, the memo said.
While thousands still flock to see the whales, sightings aren’t always guaranteed. May was the first month no southern resident killer whales were documented in inland waters, Giles said.
The image of J35 carrying the body of her calf is a “reality check” for those involved in the effort to save the orca population, she said.
“Heartbreaking is the only thing you can think,” she said. “It actually breaks your heart. It’s a true thing when they say that your heart hurts. My heart hurt.”
By Simone Del Rosario
SEATTLE – Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday that quick and dramatic action needs to be undertaken to in the Pacific Northwest, but stopped short of saying he was committed to breaching four dams on the lower Snake River.
In an interview with Q13 News’ Simone Del Rosario, Inslee said short-term efforts to save the orcas are already underway, even as a newly appointed task force works to address the primary threats the whales face: Prey, vessels and contaminants.
“We’re acting now to improve the production of Chinook, which is critical to their survival, and to take some short-term measures to reduce the interference with their hunting from noise,” Inslee said. “And some other measures that will reduce the other species ultimately that are preying on the Chinook themselves.”
Since being listed as endangered in 2005, the southern resident orca population has gone down 15 percent. The steps that have been taken so far, including increased salmon hatcheries, voluntary no-go zones and habitat restoration, have not resulted in more whales.
Inslee said some of his efforts to bolster the orca population have run into resistance in the state legislature.
“I wish the legislature had followed my proposal to them sooner,” Inslee said. "A year and a half or two years ago I proposed to help the orcas by reducing toxicity. I’ve made proposals that would spend dollars to improve our habitat that have not yet been adopted by the legislature. I’m glad the legislature is now showing a little more support for this effort, and I’m hopeful they will when we get this task force recovery plan.”
Inslee said a workable orca action plan will require sacrifice from people across the state. Some experts have suggested increased “no-go zones,” which apply to all recreational boats – fishing or otherwise – as well as commercial vessels, in an effort to minimize disruption to orcas’ fishing.
“It’s a position I’ve had for some time, that we should follow science and have an appropriate level of protection of these orcas,” Inslee said. “That’s why right now we’re reassessing to see what the distance should be. I believe it’s going to have to be greater to provide the orcas a greater level of protection, and that’s what we’re going to know when we get this task force done.
“This is some interference potentially with some of the tourism involved in this, but this is my point. If we are going to save the orcas, all of us are going to have to in some way pitch in to help. That’s Eastern Washington - we need additional flows down the Columbia River, that’s why I’ve supported additional spill, so we can move more smolts down the river faster so that there’s more food available to the orcas.”
Perhaps the most beneficial – and the most difficult – action available is to breach four dams in the lower Snake River.
According to Bonneville Power Administration, the Columbia River basin produces more hydropower than any other river system in North America.
But according to orca researcher Ken Balcomb, it also used to produce a lot more Chinook.
"The biggest watershed was in the Columbia and Snake River basin," he said. "That was 12 million fish, that was a huge amount of fish. Damming those rivers up and preventing access to their spawning grounds was the coup de grace for Chinook salmon."
Inslee said he wouldn’t shy from that fight if necessary, but said it’s ultimately the federal government’s decision.
“We should consider the science, and that is a decision that is being considered,” he said. “Under the federal court decision it is mandated, so that is now being considered. So I believe we should look at the science of that proposal to determine what its benefits could be to the orca, and what other alternatives could be to the Snake River dams.
Inslee said more immediate action is needed in the meantime.
“We need to reduce the mortality of Chinook smolts as they move down the river,” he said.
Inslee said ultimately it’s up to the public to show their support for the orcas by voting for lawmakers at the state and federal level who are behind the effort.
“You’ve got a President right now who’s working to reduce what we can do to help these endangered species,” he said.