Recently I attended a joint Orca and Salmon Recovery workshop in Vancouver, BC – a meeting of the minds between orca experts and salmon ones, talking about how we can save both. The relationship between the two species is a close one, and recovery of both is intertwined and complex. In the past, groups working on orca recovery and groups working on salmon issues rarely interacted, but the recent increase of focus on ecosystem-based approaches to recovery means that more interdisciplinary efforts are coming together.
Now, multiple conservation groups are making efforts to bridge the gap between orca recovery efforts and the same for salmon, trying to help both of these iconic species bounce back in the Pacific Northwest. Workshops like the one I attended in BC are occurring more frequently, bringing organizations together for updates, brainstorming, and planning sessions on how to look at the “big picture” of recovery. A healthy ecosystem means a better chance of recovery for Pacific salmon, which means a more reliable source of food for the critically endangered Southern Residents and their threatened Northern Resident relatives. While it may seem strange for whale-focused organizations to be advocating for dams coming down, fighting dredging in Idaho, or helping with river clean-up efforts, these are just a few examples of how we are working with an ecosystem mindset – to save the orcas, we need to save the salmon. To save the salmon, we need to restore their habitat. We’re tracing the problem all the way back to the source.
In this workshop, we reviewed some of the latest research on orca populations – both Southern and Northern Residents; we examined drone footage, a developing research method to look at orcas from afar and assess their body conditions, discussed the most recent census of the Northern Residents, and were updated on the joint recovery efforts between the US and Canada (the Southern Residents are listed as endangered in both countries, Northern Residents as Threatened in Canada). Salmon scientists discussed the use of “conservation units” in studying salmon populations, and the current status of different units from the Fraser River system in Canada (the main source of both Resident populations’ summer food), as well as the effect of fish farms in Canada on the wild salmon populations.
One point that came up in multiple presentations was that we know so little about exactly where both Resident populations go in the winter and what prey they are consuming. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently confirmed that Southern Residents, especially L pod, travel in the coastal ocean waters of Washington, Oregon, and California in the winter and continue to select Chinook as a primary prey. However, the level at which this population depends on Chinook stocks outside of the Fraser River is still unknown. Are low numbers of ocean-going salmon in the winter months why orca numbers are still decreasing? Chinook salmon populations in the Columbia, Klamath, and Sacramento River systems are mere fractions of what they once were. Observations of the Resident populations in their summer feeding grounds show a marked change from fitness levels observed in the past – today, the whales look skinnier, and the decline continues through the summer in the once salmon-abundant Salish Sea habitat.
With Fraser River salmon also on the decline, the whales are spending less time in their traditional summer feeding grounds, and pods spend more time apart as they spread out over wider areas in search of food. The abundant and localized food source that gave them the name of “Resident” is decreasing, and the whales are suffering for it. Fractured pods spend more time and energy foraging and less time socializing and caring for young – which hinders recovery for these highly social and complex orca populations.
We didn’t find any silver bullet solutions in this workshop, but there are never easy answers when it comes to ecosystem recovery. But undoubtedly, we all learned something we didn’t know before – I finally got a salmon expert to explain to me all the terms used in measuring salmon abundance (and just what the heck “escapement” means) – and left with heads full of ideas for future efforts.
Many thanks to Orca Network, The Whale Museum, and the Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists for their efforts in organizing and hosting the workshop. Looking forward for more to come!
And in the future…
I ended my trip up north with a visit to the Elwha River – the site of the largest dam removal effort in history (until, of course, we win the fight to take down the Klamath River dams). Deconstruction was completed in August of 2014, and already the river is starting to rebuild itself. It is cutting a new bed through former reservoirs, and the mouth is now framed by newly-made estuaries. Sediment free to travel downstream for the first time in over 100 years is being deposited in new river and nearshore habitats, creating wonderful spawning grounds for salmon. The removal of two dams, both built without fish ladders, has also opened more than 70 miles of habitat for all five Pacific salmon species, and fish were seen upriver of the dam sites just a few weeks after deconstruction was completed.
Restoring the riverbanks will take more time and effort, but the speed at which this river found itself again, and the way nature rebounds once we just get out of its way gives me great hope for the future of orca and salmon recovery. We’ve figured out that we’re all working towards the same goal, and we can have cascading effects on each other. A step in the right direction, if we are all walking together, can have a big impact.
Help us make the dream of dam deconstruction on the Klamath River a reality – we’re continuing the effort into 2015 to finally see these dams come down. The Elwha project took nearly 20 years to see a free-flowing river; the Southern Residents cannot wait that long for the Klamath dams to come down! Sign our letter of support here.