Orca mother griev­ing for dead calf in­spires push to save dy­ing pods

The Guardian Australia - - Environment - Levi Pulkki­nen in Seat­tle

Seat­tle’s or­cas are dy­ing. That they are dy­ing pub­licly and painfully may save them.

First was Tahle­quah’s calf. Born on 24 July, she died min­utes later. Tahle­quah buoyed her for a week be­fore mother and calf dis­ap­peared.

Then came news Thurs­day that an­other young orca, Scar­let, ap­peared to be dy­ing. Mon­i­tors had lost track of Scar­let, who was found alive with her mother Tues­day night by ma­rine bi­ol­o­gists who were con­sid­er­ing de­liv­er­ing salmon and med­i­cal treat­ment to the ill whale.

In Wash­ing­ton state, the events have fo­cused at­ten­tion on an ef­fort to re­pair the bro­ken habi­tat and stave off ex­tinc­tion of the fish-eat­ing orca. At what gov­er­nor Jay Inslee dubbed a meet­ing of the state’s “best and bright­est” on Tues­day, the long­time ac­tivist Stephanie Solien de­scribed the weeks of heart­break as a mes­sage from the or­cas.

“This is what they have told the world – it is hu­man ac­tions that are re­spon­si­ble for the dead and still­born calves, the sick and starv­ing adults and the de­clin­ing con­di­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment in which they live,” Solien said be­fore call­ing for a mo­ment of si­lence for Tahle­quah and her calf.

At last count, 75 orca live in the Sal­ish Sea, the salt­wa­ter trough stretch­ing from south of Seat­tle up the eastern coast of Vancouver Is­land. They’re a tight knit, talk­a­tive bunch; un­like their seal and shark-eat­ing cousins, they chirp in­ces­santly. They are stressed, and they are starv­ing.

Deafened by sonar and boat noise, they hunt for fish that are too few in num­ber. With each Chi­nook salmonthey catch, they poi­son them­selves a bit more; pol­lu­tion in the Pa­cific ac­cu­mu­lates at the top of the food pyra­mid. And their calves are dy­ing.

Three years have passed since an orca calf born in the re­gion sur­vived. In the past 20 years, 40 or­cas have been born into the group while 72 have died.

If enough salmon can be hatched and grown fat, if enough boats can be qui­eted, if the wa­ter and land can be cleansed, Seat­tle’s or­cas might just sur­vive. That is the hope.

The fear is that this fi­nal op­por­tu­nity to save the or­cas will be blown. Or worse,that the op­por­tu­nity has al­ready passed.

The work of sav­ing the orca in Wash­ing­ton has fallen to the Puget Sound Part­ner­ship, a task­force of lead­ers from state agen­cies, in­ter­est groups and tribal gov­ern­ments. At Tues­day’s tear­ful meet­ing, mem­bers’ minds turned to­ward le­gacy.

Kevin Ranker, a Demo­cratic state sen­a­tor rep­re­sent­ing the San Juan Is­lands that the orca call home, re­called ex­plain­ing ex­tinc­tion to his young daugh­ter. Les Purce, a re­tired uni­ver­sity pres­i­dent, de­scribed the dili­gence with which his four-year-old grand­son fol­lowed Tahle­quah’s strug­gle. The thoughts of Norma Sanchez, a Colville Con­fed­er­ated Tribes coun­cil­woman, were on her new­est de­scen­dent.

“My first great grand­child was born this year,” Sanchez said. “I would hate to think that when that child is an adult, they would say, ‘I won­der why the or­cas went ex­tinct and why we didn’t do any­thing to pro­tect them.’”

The or­cas liv­ing in the wa­ters off Seat­tle eat only fish, mostly meaty Chi­nook salmon. The re­gion’s three pods – ex­tended fam­i­lies with shared lan­guages – leave the Sal­ish Sea each win­ter to chase the Chi­nook on the Pa­cific coast.

Dams, pol­lu­tion and fish­ing have de­pressed Pa­cific north-west stocks of Chi­nook, which of­ten ap­pear in su­per­mar­kets as king salmon. For decades, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, tribal mem­bers and the fish­ing in­dus­try have called for the re­moval of dams on the Snake river of­ten blamed for the fish­ery’s de­cline. Truly wild Chi­nook are a rar­ity; hatch­eries prop up the com­mer­cial and recre­ational fish­eries.

While pol­lu­tion re­duc­tions, dam re­moval and a sealion cull are all be­ing con­sid­ered, the prime aim of the orca re­cov­ery ef­fort is to make more fish avail­able swiftly to the killer whales.

Phil An­der­son, a fish­eries ne­go­tia­tor with the Pa­cific Salmon Coun­cil, said a pro­posed treaty with Canada will re­duce the salmon catch if both gov­ern­ments ap­prove it. The treaty also in­cludes pro­vi­sions for “a sig­nif­i­cant amount of money” for hatch­eries to pro­duce Chi­nook for the or­cas.

“We will need every­body’s help if we are to get that fund­ing pack­age from the fed­eral govern­ment,” An­der­son said.

Of course, fed­eral help may be hard to come by. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is poised to push back on Wash­ing­ton state wa­ter use rules which are un­pop­u­lar with farm­ers, the only in­ter­est group in the state with the White House’s ear on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues.

In­de­ci­sion ap­pears to be a greater threat to the or­cas. Ranker, the state sen­a­tor, re­flected on a 2001 ef­fort af­ter seven or­cas died.

“We all freaked out,” he said, “and we brought to­gether groups like this, and we had all these dis­cus­sions, and we built this re­port. And it sat on the shelf. That was nearly 20 years ago. I don’t be­lieve we have an­other chance.”

We built this re­port. And it sat on the shelf. That was nearly 20 years ago. I don’t be­lieve we have an­other chance

Phil An­der­son

Pho­to­graph: David El­lifrit/AP

A baby orca whale be­ing pushed by her mother af­ter be­ing born on 24 July. The new orca died soon af­ter.

Or­cas dive through the Sal­ish Sea. Pho­to­graph: Julie Pi­cardi / Bar­croft Im­ages

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