I have spent a lot of time on Puget Sound but have never seen an orca whale, and yet I feel a close connection to these animals. My kids and I have enjoyed watching high definition BBC/PBS nature videos of transient orca whales hunting seals and even narwhals as the Arctic has melted. Orcas ability to communicate and hunt in packs like wolves make them “the most terrifying predator since the Tyrannosauruses Rex” according to one scientist.
There are a lot of competing priorities for local governments including homelessness, the opioid epidemic, mental and behavioral health the list is long and solutions are expensive and very hard to achieve. Somewhere in the distant background of local news coverage is the fact that 8 Southern Resident Orca whales have died in the last 18 months bringing their total to a 30 year low of 76. Simply put the endangered orcas are starving. They are also vulnerable to human caused toxic pollution and boat noise from whale watchers and large ships. If the greatest Apex predator in Puget Sound cannot survive because of damage from human beings what does that say about us?
Do our leaders care enough to do something about it?
One State Legislator from Orcas Island is proposing the Orca Protection Act which would extend whale watching buffers and fund a WDFW enforcement boat. The bill which is expected to cost $1 million is a small first step. Another effort calls for a plan to feed the orcas with 10-20 million more hatchery Chinook to be released into Puget Sound in hopes of providing enough food for the endangered Orcas. For long-term orca recovery we will need a much larger movement and it will need to be a priority for the entire State of Washington.
What would it take to do our part to save the Orcas?
Here is what a three part plan to save the orcas might look like in Pierce County.
1) Work with local tribes to do everything possible to strengthen Chinook salmon runs immediately. Southern Resident Orcas eat fish (transient orcas mostly eat marine mammals). 97% of a Southern Resident Orcas diet is salmon and 78% is Chinook salmon. The decline of our Chinook Salmon runs must be improved if we want to provide the orcas with enough food to survive. First we are going to have to increase the number of hatchery Chinook we release in a manner that minimizes their negative influence on wild salmon which will be challenging.
Locally we must increase Chinook habitat with projects like the Clear Creek Floodplains for the Future Project that could dramatically increase habitat for juvenile Chinook in the lower Puyallup River. We must also remove barriers like old culverts that currently don’t allow Chinook to get all the way to their spawning grounds.
2) We must do more to clean up Puget Sound water quality and limit the release of toxins. Low-impact development, reducing plastic waste, and even electric vehicles (no oil leaks) can provide cleaner water for orcas. Our new Chambers Creek Sewer Treatment plant expansion will make the water going into Puget Sound much cleaner and will dramatically reduce nitrogen.
3) We must limit the sound that boats make underwater. One thing Pierce County could do is to move towards an electric ferry with a much cleaner and quieter engine like the one being built for Skagit County. Pierce County owns two ferry’s that annually use over 170,000 gallons of diesel so the potential retrofit to an electric engine might pay for itself fairly quickly.
Will Southern Resident Orcas be something my grandchildren see in a museum (like a dinosaur), or thriving in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea? Only time will tell. Let’s hope we get it together in time to protect the one species that makes our region truly unique.
Ryan Dicks, Pierce County Sustainability Manager