Walla Walla Sunrise Rotary member John McKern refuted claims that Lower Snake River dams are causing the decline of Puget Sound orcas, during a recent presentation to his club.
John is a retired fish and wildlife biologist and consultant. Orcas/killer whales are apex predators in the earth’s oceans, he said. What follows is his report:
Endangered southern resident killer whales eat primarily salmon, most from the Fraser River in Canada, and the rest from Puget Sound rivers. They do eat Columbia River Chinook, but according to studies that have been ongoing for decades, those salmon make up only two percent of their diet.
Through fossils and DNA analysis, scientists have determined orcas evolved about 5 million years ago, and the three pods of the SRKW population have not interbred with other pods for 700,000 years. Like the SRKWs, the northern resident killer whales found further up the coast and in Alaskan waters feed primarily on salmon. The Biggs or Transient Killer Whales further offshore found all along the West Coast eat fish, seals, sea lions, porpoises, and other whales, John said.
In the 1960s and ’70s, SRKWs were captured for places like Sea World. Young whales taken into captivity did not survive well as they were often held in deplorable conditions, fed the wrong diet and if they survived and adapted, were trained to perform in a business that made millions for the owners.
Some orcas that survived in captivity lived a decade or two with the oldest living 30 years. In the wild, males live about 50 years with one old timer that was around for 90 years. Females live longer with one that lived over 100 years
Orcas live in matrilineal pods led by the old grandmother and made up of her daughters and sons and their offspring. Scientists from the U.S. and Canada photograph each whale and can identify each one by their different markings, shape of fins and scars.
They follow the pods closely, taking fat samples with darts shot at the whales, and collecting scat samples from boats as they are identified by special “poop sniffing” dogs. The scientists monitor Orca DNA, DNA of what Orcas eat, health and body condition, and presence pollutants in their systems.
The biggest culprit in the decline in SRKWs is environmental pollution. A long list of pesticides and industrial chemicals are found in the whale’s fat. Dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane/DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls/PCBs are two of the principle killers.
Because orcas are apex predators, pollutants taken in by microorganisms are concentrated, then they are eaten by invertebrates that concentrate them, then they are eaten by small fish that are eaten by larger fish, and so forth and the highest concentrations end up in the Orcas.
Pollutants inhibit the Orcas’ immune systems making them more susceptible to disease. The mothers pass concentrated pollutants to their young in the womb, and after birth, pass concentrated pollutants to the babies through their milk so the babies get the highest concentrations of all. The recent heart-rending videos of mother J35 pushing her dead calf around for days testifies to the lethality of the pollution. None of the babies born to the SKW population have survived in the last three years
Tragically, when the Orcas are short of food as are the SRKWs, they concentrate pollutants in their bodies even further as they use stored fat. As the salmon populations the SRKWs depend on fluctuate, the impacts of human pollution can become even more severe.
Another monstrous form of pollution is affecting whale, bird, and fish populations around the world. Similar to the inorganic pesticides that take decades to break down, the oceans are grossly polluted with plastics that can take decades or centuries to break down. They have been found in whales bloated with stomachs full of plastic garbage or whales that choked on massive amounts of plastic they swallowed when feeding. They have been found in birds that died from not being able to digest them in their guts. The have been found in some orcas that got them from the birds, fish, or other cetaceans they killed and ate.
Boats, ships, and whale watching cruises interfere with the whales feeding as the ocean is filled with noise. Orcas have highly sensitive echolocation abilities that let them hear prey splashing or feeding miles away. The whine of high-speed propellers and the clangs and thrums of merchant vessels or ferries can interfere causing orcas to miss meals. Whale watchers can harass orcas, further interfering with their hunting.
Listed as endangered, the SRKWs are being federally protected, and Washington state has pledged a billion dollars for protective policing, production of more salmon to feed them, and $750,000 for a study about removing the Lower Snake River dams.
What this study might find compared to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study conducted from the late 1990s to 2002 that cost over $33 million, involved all the agencies and stake holders, and drew tens of thousands of public comments remains to be seen.
The Corps concluded the best option was to improve the fish facilities and operations rather than breaching the dams.
Two decades of facility and operation improvements have resulted in the highest salmon counts at the Lower Snake River dams since this decision was made, and if anything, dam breaching would diminish the salmon runs.
For those interested in seeing orcas from shore, Lime Kiln Point State Park near Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in north Puget Sound provides one of the best opportunities.
Walla Walla Sunrise Rotary meets Wednesdays at 6:45 a.m. for breakfast and community interest programs at St. Francis Community Center, 722 W. Alder St. For more information, contact President Wiley Warner at firstname.lastname@example.org.