The state of Washington has declared emergency and proposed $1 billion in disaster funding to save the last remaining southern-resident killer whales. Separately but simultaneously, many of the same political leaders are celebrating congressional approval to kill hundreds of a different marine mammal: California sea lions. Caught in the crossfire are the Chinook salmon that feed orcas, lions and anglers alike.
Washington’s southern-resident killer whales only eat Chinook salmon, unlike their transient cousins who occasionally visit Puget Sound and exclusively hunt marine mammals—from harbor seals to sea lions to grey whales. The three resident pods grew steadily after the last of the grisly captures for marine parks in the ’60s and passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. Their numbers peaked near 100 in the mid-’90s, followed by a sustained downward trend that led to an endangered species listing decision in 2003. Their decline has continued ever since, leading to a current population of 74, an all-time low.
These orcas received national press last summer when the first calf born to any of the pods in four years quickly died. Its mother kept the dead calf afloat, pushing it around with her head for 17 days. Soon after came a string of stories about sick Washington whales and wild plans to capture some of them for veterinary treatment.
Biologists widely believe starvation to be one of the leading causes for the population declines and recent sickness among the southern-resident killer whales, along with pollution and boat traffic that interferes with their unique language of calls. A recent study suggests that these cetaceans will go extinct within a century if the current trends are not corrected.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) convened a special task force to address this issue last March. In his biennial budget last December, Governor Inslee proposed allocating $1.1 billion dollars to the problem. Those funds would help implement the task force’s recommendations for correcting the tailspin in the southern-resident killer whale population and their favorite food, Chinook salmon.
In the same week, on the other side of the country, the U.S. Senate passed the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act, sending it to the president’s desk for signature. The bill amends the Marine Mammal Protection Act to authorize a steep increase in the targeted killings of California, as well as Steller’s, sea lions in the Columbia River and its tributaries—up to 900 of the pinnipeds per year. Gov. Inslee and his liberal-leaning legislature hailed the sea lion killing bill. The Seattle Times Editorial Board called on Congress to go even further.
But why slaughter one marine mammal species while proposing astronomical sums to retain another?
Sea lions eat salmon, and any other fish they can get their jaws around, but they have thrived in the conditions created by intensive human development in the Northwest—killer whales have not.
Washington is the most dammed state in the country. The Columbia is the largest river on the West Coast of North America and historically produced more anadromous fish than any other drainage on earth. Bonneville Dam, the lowest of the 14 dams on the mainstem, sits 150 miles from the mouth at Astoria, Oregon. Salmon, steelhead and sturgeon stack up in the tailrace of the dam as they seek the fish ladders, offering sea lions and other predators a bonanza.
The Army Corps of Engineers began monitoring sea lion populations at Bonneville in 2002, when they counted 30 California and zero Steller’s. The numbers have exploded since then to a total of 264 in 2015, which consumed an estimated 10,859 salmonids.
Only male California sea lions make the migration up from their warmer home waters further south, so the current, aggressive euthanasia efforts are expected to have almost no effect on their overall, booming population. The larger Steller’s sea lions, a relative newcomer to the Bonneville buffet, feed on green and white sturgeon as well as salmon and steelhead, and are thriving just like southern cousins. They were removed from ESA protection in 2013.
To be fair, the explosion in sea lion populations of recent decades isn’t the sole driver of declines in wild Chinook salmon, or killer whales for that matter. One could argue that Bonneville Dam itself is more to blame than the lions who take advantage of the bottleneck it creates. In fact, many of the hundreds of dams across Washington were not built to allow for any fish passage.
When the first of these dead-end dams were built at the end of the 19th century, their impact on migratory fish became rapidly apparent. Hatcheries were then built to “mitigate” the destroyed salmon runs. In subsequent decades, however, a significant body of scientific research emerged suggesting that hatcheries also have a deleterious effect on native salmon and steelhead. Hatchery-raised fish compete with wild fish as smolts, in the ocean and can pass their inbred genetics into the native gene pool on the spawning beds. Ironically, after recently beginning to scale back their enormous hatchery releases, Washington is now considering ramping back up their stocking of juvenile Chinook salmon as a means to help feed the starving, Chinook-dependent, southern-resident killer whales.
Chinook, far and away the largest and most popular Pacific salmon species, have been in steady decline for most of the last century throughout their range, leading to recent fishery closures from the Sacramento Delta to Bristol Bay. Dams, sea lions and hatcheries are certainly not the only factors; over-harvest, pollution, habitat destruction and warming ocean and river conditions contribute as well. The Upper Columbia spring-run population is listed as endangered under the ESA, and most of the other populations throughout the Columbia Basin in Oregon, Idaho and Washington are threatened or extinct.
States and tribes have already begun to cull sea lions from the Columbia and Willamette rivers and many people are calling to expand the lethal removal to Puget Sound, where the southern-resident killer whales spend most of their time and Chinook populations are doing even worse. There is even a proposal in British Columbia to allow a for a commercial seal and sea lion hunting season.
Myriad other proposals are emerging as well, from fixing fish passage on tiny culverts to breaching four enormous dams on the Lower Snake River. Washington’s governor wants a three-year moratorium on whale watching (to minimize harassment and boat noise) and the National Marine Fisheries Service is considering harsh restrictions on oceanic salmon fisheries. Recreational anglers will feel the bite as well, with reduced seasons and bag limits a near certainty.
Killer whale and Chinook salmon populations have dipped so low that the Northwest has finally hit the panic button. Few might have thought a decade or two ago that these animal rights enclaves would one day advocate for the killing of one marine mammal to save another. The outcome is unclear, but it is sure to be one of the most titanic wildlife conservation efforts in history.