Safina on orcas in LA Times

Save the salmon — and us

Above is a link a nice Op-Ed piece by Carl Safina.  Below is my response, submitted today to the L.A. Times.

In his 1/24/10 opinion “Save the salmon — and us,” Safina points out that new research says orcas prefer salmon.  But the in-press analysis of prey scraps by NOAA’s Brad Hanson is more specific: like humans, the southern resident killer whales’ first choice for a summertime meal is the biggest, fattiest, salmon around — the Fraser River chinook.  Along the west coast, the biggest chinook are associated with the biggest river systems (the Fraser in the summer; the Columbia and Sacramento in the winter) because it takes a big, strong fish to swim thousands of kilometers inland (e.g. to Idaho).  For the orcas’ sake, we need to prioritize chinook recovery in the biggest rivers.

To keep the orcas visiting the Salish Sea during the summer, we should all be more involved in conserving the chinook (and other salmon) runs of the Fraser river, along with recovering stocks in the rivers of western Washington.  We Americans should get more involved in the battle raging in British Columbia between Norwegian salmon farms and advocates of wild Fraser sockeye like Alexandra Morton.  Her proposed actions to protect sockeye smolts from diseased farm fish will also help baby chinook on their way to the open Pacific, and thereby ensure future meals for southern residents.  Activists can also help the orcas by bolstering conservation efforts in Washington State, like the recent delta restorations in the Skagit and Nisqually rivers, or the removal of Elwha river dams (now starting in 2011 thanks to stimulus funds).

To prevent extinction of orcas we must protect their winter food sources.  We need to call our legislators, most importantly the recalcitrant Senators from Washington, to initiate a new approach to salmon management in the Pacific Northwest.  The current plan for Columbia salmon is a Bush-era cop-out that parasitized new-NOAA-head Jane Lubchenco like a B.C. sea louse jumps a Fraser sockeye smolt.  To recover, the Columbia/Snake salmon need innovative, dramatic action — including dam removal — not the business-as-usual that led to salmon ecosystem collapses first in England and then along the Atlantic seaboard (read “King of Fish” by David Montgomery for historic perspective).  The best idea I’ve heard is to place a salmon specialist on the President’s Council on Environmental Quality to mandate and facilitate a new regional collaboration already called for by Congressional leaders from Oregon and Idaho. 

One year into the Obama administration is a good time to call for such high-level solutions.  We should demand full funding of the recovery plan and research to support it — both of which have been under-funded by ~70% since the southern residents were listed as endangered.  Oh, and the word “orca” should be in the next salmon treaty, too, because it appears that they are at the table from California to Alaska — whether human fishers like it or not.

One Response to Safina on orcas in LA Times

  1. Candace Whiting recently looked at a variety of research and calculated that adult SRKWs need around 250,000 calories per day, per orca, to survive, which works out (depending on assumptions) to somewhere around 18 chinook per orca per day. So the current population needs to eat roughly 1522 chinook/day, or 45,000/month, or about 550,000 fish/year. For the whales to catch that many, biologists estimate there need to be around 1.75 million chinook in their range. And that’s for the present-day depleted SRKW population. One need not think for a long time about these needs to realize how important it is to boost chinook production. Restoring the Elwha will help, but the only other major source of more chinook is the Columbia. Scott is right: “We need to call our legislators, most importantly the recalcitrant Senators from Washington, to initiate a new approach to salmon management in the Pacific Northwest.”

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