The club is advocating to get the Army Corps of Engineers to remove the four lower dams on the Snake River in eastern Washington, which would enable more Chinook salmon to flow through to feed the orcas. // Photo by Mathew Roland
The southern resident orca whales in Puget Sound made national news in July 2018 when a calf died moments after birth. The mother, in mourning, carried her offspring with her for weeks following. Often, other members of the pod would give the mother a rest and help her carry the calf’s body.
This story is one of many of a starved population of resident whales, said Shari Tarantino, president of Seattle-based nonprofit Orca Conservancy.
In a time when only 74 southern resident orcas remain after a summer which took three of their lives, Western’s Students for the Salish Sea club is continuing its efforts to take action and spread information about orcas.
Club facilitator Caitlyn Blair said Students for the Salish Sea is a group that brings together education, science, research, art and anything else to increase awareness of the Salish Sea and its issues.
On Oct. 5, the club hosted a workshop in response to Gov. Jay Inslee’s creation of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, a government-funded group focused on preserving the native animals. The workshop provided a space for members to discuss possible solutions to help the endangered whales, Blair said. She said this is an issue that is subject to much public pressure.
“We are going to be calling senators and government representatives to get our names on the list and let them know that we still care about [the issues the orcas face] and this is something that is extremely important and vital to the production of the Salish Sea and the southern resident orcas,” Blair said.
One of the biggest solutions the club is advocating for is to get the Army Corps of Engineers to remove the four lower dams on the Snake River in eastern Washington, which would enable more Chinook salmon to flow through to feed the orcas, she said.
Removing the dams may have cultural significance as well, senior and activist Leah Olver said.
“I always circle back to the people who are being most impacted in any issue, as a form of accountability to myself,” Olver said. “I like to look at what the tribes are asking for, what the people who live in those areas are looking for. There’s never going to be one solution that solves everything.”
However, removing the dams is not as easy as it seems, Blair said, as there is an entire community of dam employees who would need to be compensated and resettled.
Beyond that, urbanization around the Salish Sea has diminished forage fish, the food the salmon depend on, which would reduce the newly introduced population, Olver said.
Orca Conservancy fully supports the removal of the dams, Tarantino said. In the last ten years, the organization has tried to boost the salmon population in the Puget Sound by working on various rivers including the Klamath, Eel, Rogue, Skykomish and Fraser rivers.
Orca Conservancy has advocated for much change recently to improve the livelihoods of orcas with projects all over the state. These projects include the opposition of tidal turbines and toxic waste facilities and supporting mining withdrawals which damage the ecosystems salmon rely on, as well as the protection of various species of forage fish for the salmon to eat, Tarantino said.
Blair’s passion for the southern resident orca dates back over a decade, she said, when her mom adopted a whale from the local whale museum.
Growing up in Colorado, Blair didn’t see the ocean much despite her family’s interest in sea life. Getting involved with the Students for the Salish Sea is a large reason why she applied to Western, she said.
To her, the problems facing the southern resident orcas are personal. Many have joined Blair in this sentiment.
“When that calf was dead, you could feel that,” Olver said. “I think everybody saw that and felt it on a really deep level, even people that don’t know a lot about the Puget Sound and aren’t from here.”
Three southern resident orcas died over the summer, two of which had declining health for many weeks.
“What we witnessed over the summer was not normal, and frankly, it was gut-wrenching,” Tarantino said in an email response. “This is what extinction looks like and is indicative of a food-deprived population. This is an endangered species that is protected by laws of the Endangered Species Act, and part of what we are witnessing is corporate greed that is exacerbated by the blatant lack of political will.”
Tarantino appreciates the time and attention that has been given to the southern resident orca population by the state government, she said. Orca Conservancy remains hopeful that the necessary actions will be taken to recover the population.
“If the population dies, we die,” Blair said. “Once that population goes away, it takes away the fish population, it takes away everything else, and everything falls out of balance.”