Saving endangered whales: Strategies from above and below the 49th parallel

Are the whales experiencing a difference in their lives based on which side of the 49th parallel they reside?

Southern Resident killer whales in the Salish Sea.

Photo by NOAA.

On May 10, the Canadian federal government announced its first wide-ranging measures to reduce the primary threats compromising survival of the salmon-eating Southern Resident killer whales reliant on the transboundary waters of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.

Although federally listed as endangered in 2003 in Canada and 2005 in the US, little has happened in more than a decade to reduce these threats. Recovery strategies and viability analyses confirm that the abundance and availability of Chinook (king) salmon, the whale’s primary prey, is a key driver of killer whale birth rates and mortality, but noisy and congested waters interfere with their successful hunting and feeding on these fish. Further, the salmon, which should be providing the energy and nutrition to fuel survival and population growth, are smaller than a century ago and polluted with toxins that arrive from the streams and rivers draining the lands where eight million people live, work and recreate – the watersheds of the Salish Sea.

In the spring of 2018, Canada declared that the whales faced an “imminent threat” to their survival and recovery, which under the Species at Risk Act requires the immediate application of protective measures.  Tweet This!

From the whales’ perspective, they aren’t getting enough to eat, and what they do eat might be contributing to excessively high rates of failed pregnancies. Moreover, family members –who play important roles in their culture and survival – are dying, causing stress and grief. But are the whales experiencing a difference in their lives based on which side of the 49th parallel they reside?

The threats to the Southern Residents are often summarized as ‘reduced prey availability, physical and acoustic disturbance, and contaminant exposure’. Addressing these threats, however, means confronting human activities in the lands and waters of the Salish Sea. Herein lies the inertia. It goes to the heart of the footprint that an affluent human population has on this region, and the consequential social and economic implications of any measures.

In Canada, the threat reduction dial first shifted in 2018 because of mounting public pressure over delayed recovery action, lawsuits, the increasing profile of whale deaths (there have been more than 50 since being listed as endangered) and their declining numbers. In the spring of 2018, Canada declared that the whales faced an “imminent threat” to their survival and recovery, which under the Species at Risk Act requires the immediate application of protective measures. The first of these measures were seasonal sport fishing closures in some key places where Southern Residents feed. The goal was to reduce the competition, noise and disturbance from fishing vessels in pursuit of the same fish.

In May 2019, Canada introduced wide-ranging measures to address primary threats. The vessel approach distance was increased to 400 meters, active whale watching (on Southern Residents) was discouraged, whale sanctuaries (where vessels are prohibited) were implemented, a conservation agreement fashioned with shipping companies to speed to limit noise, and the use of fishing closures in specific times and places continued. Canada’s approach is species specific, linking threats to explicit times and areas. Although ostensibly comprehensive, these efforts for threat reduction fall short in several ways. Broadly, the times, areas and reductions of these efforts are limited relative to what is likely necessary to realize a noticeable reduction in the stressors on the whales. But it’s an important start.

Below the 49th Parallel

As in BC, Washington State is home to many people that care deeply about these whales. Unlike BC, Washington State has stepped into recovery efforts for whales that are under federal protection. From Washington’s perspective, the endangered status of these whales is a reflection that all is not well with the Salish Sea. From the forage fish (like herring and other smelt) that feed Chinook salmon to the pollutants that drain into Puget Sound, the problem stems from the loss of ecosystem function; a concept that links ecosystem components (species) with the quality and quantity of habitat to food webs. Ecosystem function is fundamental to the recovery and survival of endangered species, and its benefits accrue to far more than one species. Governor Jay Inslee’s Task Force recognized the need for such an approach and the state subsequently passed bill 1579, a step to strengthen state provisions on protecting fish habitat, including forage fish habitat.

Governor Inslee’s Task Force made other recommendations to further Southern Resident recovery, but not all bills passed the legislature, including a failed bill to place a moratorium on whale watching that would have relieved whales from the noise and disturbance of close proximity follows. The other bill with the potential to be significant for whales is the toxin bill, which allows Washington’s Department of Ecology to identify and regulate chemicals (including classes of chemicals) found in household products. Advocates of the bill have called it the nation’s strongest legislation regulating toxic chemicals in consumer products.

The Bigger Picture

What neither country has accomplished is a way to increase Chinook abundance, largely because viewpoints on why Southern Residents aren’t getting enough to eat are divided. Washington is putting more money into hatchery production at a time when growing evidence suggests hatcheries are part of the reason Chinook have failed to recover.

Southern Residents evolved to target large and old Chinook salmon that returned to rivers from early spring to winter. Hatcheries have failed to protect or restore the old ages, big sizes, range of migration times and diversity of wild Chinook salmon. While this is worsened by fishing pressure, new science suggests that the hundreds of billions of hatchery salmon released into the North Pacific are overgrazing the commons. There simply isn’t enough food to go around and Chinook may be bigger losers in this game than say, pink salmon. Whatever the mechanism, the evidence shows that the more hatchery fish there are, the less likely that wild Chinook can recover, and could even result in fewer Chinook overall.

But what Chinook hatcheries do accomplish is keeping fisheries open, and herein lies the principal controversy in Southern Resident killer whale recovery. From Alaska to the Pacific Northwest, more than a million Chinook destined for rivers where Southern Residents could intercept them are caught legally in marine fisheries. In addition, unknown numbers die from encounters with legal fisheries and as by-catch in non-salmon fisheries.

Washington is putting more money into hatchery production at a time when growing evidence suggests hatcheries are part of the reason Chinook have failed to recover.  Tweet This!

A third factor in Chinook abundance in the Salish Sea is the recovery of fish-eating pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) in the last several decades following marine mammal protection legislation in Canada and the US. Given their numbers, more salmon will be eaten, but studies show salmon generally, and Chinook specifically, are a small proportion of their diet. Where these pinnipeds have gained an advantage is the ability to linger at river mouths – free from natural predators and hauling out on man-made structures. But if the overall goal is restoring ecosystems, pinniped recovery might be telling. More seals have also attracted their primary predator- the mammal-eating Biggs killer whales. These killer whales have tripled their numbers and frequency in the Salish Sea and they may be the most effective regulator on seal numbers.

Ensuring ecosystem health will always require humans to be only one of many predators that rely on foundation species like herring and salmon. These species drive the cold water ecosystems of the North Pacific. In the last century sport and commercial fisheries have extracted huge amounts in biomass of these fish, and in the case of salmon, trying to use hatcheries for their recovery has created a multitude of problems. If Canada and the US are serious about the recovery of these iconic killer whales, we have to take a deeper dive on the human predator impact.

Misty MacDuffee, biologist and program director.

Misty MacDuffee

Misty is a biologist and the Program Director of Raincoast’s Wild Salmon Program. Her most recent publication, with co-authors at the Wild Fish Conservancy and the University of Montana, describes a framework for certifying salmon fisheries based on a much higher bar than is currently in use. She is dedicated to the long term survival of finned, furred, and feathered creatures.


A version of this article first appeared in Bloomberg.

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