Will suspending vessel-based whale watching be enough to save this population? No, but it will help.
As we debate how to save our iconic southern resident killer whales, we are perilously close to losing them. Political consensus, scientific certainty and painless solutions were never realistic.
We know what they need most: more salmon and less harassment so they can eat and rest in peace. Much remains to be done to restore the Salish Sea ecosystem, but undisturbed habitat and sufficient food are the immediate needs.
The population declined to 74 this year, but includes only 27 females capable of reproducing — although they have not done so successfully since 2015. Data from the past 20 years indicate their downward trend will continue if we fail to take strong action; hence, Gov. Jay Inslee’s call for a bold recovery strategy. If we really want to save them, now is the time to act.
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Sadly, I’ve seen this before. As a marine mammal scientist, manager and former executive director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, I have watched too many populations plunge toward extinction while we seek the cheapest silver bullet. Despite all good intentions, the notion that we can pinpoint that single, painless management action is too often deadly wrong.
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In my lifetime, we’ve seen severe declines in Hawaiian monk seals, Cook Inlet beluga whales, northern fur seals, Steller sea lions, the extinct Chinese baiji, the extinct Caribbean monk seal, the extinct Japanese sea lion, and the Mexican vaquita, which plummeted from about 560 individuals in the early 1990s to fewer than 30 now and likely will go extinct in the next few years.
The difficulty of turning these populations around is always underestimated. Even when the cause was known with certainty, the road to — and responsibility for — recovery was debated far too long. We talk about being precautionary in our recovery efforts but, in fact, we have been extraordinarily slow and reluctant to take preventive actions.
Much like the dead sea lions that have been washing up on our shores lately, the problems for killer whales started with shooting them because they were deemed a competitor for food; they also were removed from the wild for display in aquariums.
After Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, the southern resident population began to recover, growing from 71 in 1976 to 98 in 1995. Since then, failing numbers of chinook salmon and increasing numbers of boats dogging the whales have simply overwhelmed their abilities to survive and reproduce.
Application of the precautionary principle would have minimized those risks — even if the benefits weren’t guaranteed — but, again, we have not been willing to invoke that principle.
Recognize it or not, this is a crisis in the making, and it requires urgent and bold actions. Based on the Orca Task Force’s recommendations, Gov. Inslee should order an increase in hatchery production of chinook salmon, managed to avoid harm to wild salmon runs, and initiate the process of removing dams on the lower Snake River to restore those runs and ecosystems.
But bringing back wild salmon runs will take decades, so the governor also must prevent vessels from harassing the whales. Such harassment may be driving the whales from their primary habitat, which further undermines their ability to find sufficient salmon.
Yes, suspending vessel-based whale watching comes at a cost. But we have ample materials for educating the public, and the whales can be viewed easily from shore. Regarding the economic effects, consider the future costs if we lose this population. Yes, we love these whales, but we’re going to love them to death if we don’t give them room to recover.
Will suspending vessel-based whale watching be enough to save this population? No, but it will help. We still must wrestle with more complicated long-term solutions, but minimizing harm now is essential, and it is the least we can do.