Endangered southern resident orcas need help. The iconic killer whales’ numbers are falling, and there’s no time to waste if the pods are to survive.
It comes down to fish, Chinook salmon specifically. A decade ago, federal officials concluded that commercial and recreational salmon fisheries were not likely to affect orcas. Humans could harvest salmon from coastal waters, and the orca would be fine.
That analysis might have been wrong. Scientists now believe that the whales cannot find enough fatty Chinook to sustain them. As they grow hungry, they burn their blubber for energy. If the blubber runs out, they starve. Burning the blubber also releases stored toxins picked up from polluted waters. Those toxins are suspected to be harming whale reproductive systems.
A reproductive crash is partly responsible for the declining population. Only one calf has survived past birth since 2015. Recent population counts found 75 resident killer whales in the waters between Washington and Canada. That’s the lowest number since the 1970s.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for making the decision, announced last month that it will take a fresh look at the evidence. If it finds that commercial salmon fisheries are harming endangered whales, it could limit harvests.
Yet fisheries create jobs and drive the economies of many coastal communities. If severely curtailed to help killer whales, those communities could suffer. The issue is not simply “save the whales,” even if some environmental groups paint it that starkly in legal action aimed at forcing a rapid response. Speed is important, but not if it becomes reckless.
Biology and habitat form complicated webs of causes and effects that aren’t easily predicted. Inland dams also limit salmon. Pollution affects sea-life health. Noise from sea vessels affects orcas. And even pink salmon — not to be confused with Chinook — are taking a toll.
Washington is trying to help. In December, Gov. Jay Inslee requested $1.1 billion for state aid efforts intended to help the southern resident population of killer whales.
Ultimately, though, the federal government controls the fate of these creatures. The Marine Fisheries Service should hasten and prioritize its analysis, ideally finishing quickly enough to influence decisions about 2019 Chinook harvests. The scientific evidence is available, and the orcas need help as soon as possible.