What the whales are telling us
HIDDEN BEACH, Washington––A single well-timed photo on a recent April 2018 morning could have captured in one frame almost the whole story of marine mammals in the Saratoga Passage, on Puget Sound, and indeed worldwide, amid intensified competition for food, accentuated by the effects of global warming.
ANIMALS 24-7 was fortunate enough to be there, but taking it all in from our vantage point at Hidden Beach actually required multiple photos of the fast-moving subjects during many hours of observation.
In the deep channel, alongside Camano Island, between two and three miles from us but still clearly visible, a half dozen “resident” orcas made their way north, hunting a steeply diminished chinook salmon run.
Several whale-watching vessels followed as close behind––600 feet from the hindmost whale––as recently strengthened state and federal regulations allow.
In mid-channel, near the end of the-then submerged mud flat that extends from Whidbey Island out a mile into the Saratoga Passage, one lone California sea lion discreetly waited until the orcas were safely past, then barked as if looking for missing friends.
Other marine mammals not on the menu
Puget Sound, including the Saratoga Passage, is the southern and mostly U.S. half of the Salish Sea, a system of inland waters extending north to include the Georgia Strait and Johnstone Strait in western British Columbia, Canada.
The Salish Sea “resident” orcas––J, K, and L pods, according to the international identification system––relatively seldom venture out to the Pacific Ocean, though they have occasionally been seen as far south as Monterey Bay, California.
The “resident” orcas do not eat other marine mammals. The “transient” T pod, however, who live mostly in the Pacific but are frequent Salish Sea visitors, hunt sea lions, seals, dolphins, and porpoises, both for food and for sport.
The sea lion was wisely taking no chances.
Grey whales gobble ghost shrimp
Swimming as close to shore as their 30-to-40-ton bulk would allow, often in as little as five or six feet of water, two grey whales foraged for ghost shrimp, repeatedly circling over the submerged mud flat, making “whale tracks,” or “feeding pits” as marine biologists call them.
Raking the muck with their left fins, the grey whales thrust their right fins skyward, pushing their heads sideways to filter the shrimp from the muddy water, stones, seaweed, and miscellaneous debris.
Sea gulls swarmed overhead, snatching whatever shrimp eluded the grey whales, sometimes actually landing on the whales’ backs temporarily, taking wing again split-seconds before water spouts would have hit them like wet anti-aircraft fire.
Dall’s porpoise & harbor seals
Even closer, avoiding both the orcas and the grey whales, a Dall’s porpoise hugged the shoreline, near the hundred-year-old pilings, stinking of creosote, where the remains of a Dall’s porpoise washed up after the porpoise ran afoul of two T-pod orcas in October 2017.
Two harbor seals “bottled” in the shallows, standing almost upright to watch the other marine mammals in the unprecedented convergence––unprecedented, at least, in documented human observation.
While adult harbor seals are not small, typically weighing 250 pounds or more, a single accidental flip of the huge tail flukes of a grey whale could easily crush a seal by accident.
Captain Ahab was here!
Unfortunately, though Native Americans lived along the Salish Sea shores for 10,000 years or more before the arrival of the first Europeans, documented human observation of the resident wildlife did not start until the 1792 arrival of British explorer George Vancouver.
Documented human observation of the Saratoga Passage began with the U.S. Exploring Expedition visit of June 1841. The 18-mile channel was named by expedition leader Charles Wilkes.
Wilkes holds a significant place in the cultural history of whales. His violent temperament, harsh punishments of crew, and genocidal response to the murder of two sailors in Fiji reputedly inspired novelist Herman Melville to create the character of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1851), the best-known whale story since the time of Jonah, who was reputedly swallowed by a whale but lived to tell about it circa 750 BCE.
Beavers helped to feed the orcas
Scientific quantification of the wildlife of the Salish Sea, including the Saratoga Passage, did not become reasonably comprehensive until after more than a century of intensive whaling, sealing, fishing, logging, shoreline development, beaver and otter trapping, and damming of tributaries. All of this contributed to irrevocably changing the habitat and the relative abundance of species at Hidden Beach as well as everywhere else throughout the region.
The ancient pilings, for instance, are a legacy of local lumberjacks building log rafts to float whole forests south to help build Seattle. Gullies interrupting the shoreline indicate where beaver dams once held back the runoff from heavy winter rains, creating year-round rocky spawning shallows that are now silted over by soil erosion every few months––or weeks.
A small 1940-vintage dam at Greenbank Bay, a mile south, along with a short causeway built in 1903, plus landfill added over the past half century to support waterfront homes, cut off a spawning estuary that was thriving as of 1888. “Tea Party” Republicans stormed a public meeting several years ago and shouted down a proposal to restore the estuary before it could even be presented, but the planning process has continued.
Scientific observers today can only make educated guesses about what the “normal” balance of species should be, including about the numbers of salmon the habitat once supported, and especially chinook or “king” salmon, the most coveted prey of both humans and marine mammals.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency web page on chinook salmon, “Just over 485,000 chinook were reported to be in the Salish Sea in 2010, a 60% reduction in chinook abundance since 1984,” when regular counts began.
Worse, the EPA page reports “a 29% reduction in the number of harvested salmon and a 30% increase in the number of spawning salmon since 1999 when Puget Sound chinook were listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.”
Marine mammals blamed
Though the chief causes of the reduced numbers of salmon are environmental, especially the effects of global warming in recent years, marine mammals are easily and often blamed.
“From 1975 to 2015, the number of chinook salmon consumed each year by west coast seals, sea lions and killer whales (orcas) has increased more than six-fold,” says the online Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, maintained by the Puget Sound Institute, a project of the University of Washington at Tacoma.
“Harbor seals, protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, have nearly doubled in number in inland waterways and along the west coast over the past 40 years — going from 210,000 to 355,000,” the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound continues.
“Adult California sea lions grew from 5,900 animals in 1975 to 47,000 in 2015. Steller sea lions increased as well, from 74,400 to 78,500,” the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound adds.
Orcas up, local pods down
Most remarkably, concludes the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound entry, “The total west coast population of fish-eating resident orcas has more than doubled, from an estimated 292 to 644 over the 40-year time period.”
Yet the combined population of J, K, and L pods, the “southern resident” orcas of Puget Sound, has dwindled from 98 in 1995 to just 76 at present.
“A baby orca has not been born in the past few years,” summarized Phuong Le of Associated Press on March 23, 2018. “Half of the calves born during a celebrated baby boom several years ago have died. Female orcas are having pregnancy problems linked to nutritional stress brought on by a low supply of chinook salmon, the whales’ preferred food,” according to recent research.
Help from the guv
Federally recognized as critically endangered since 2005, the “southern resident” orcas in March 2018 gained additional protection through an executive order by Washington governor Jay Inslee.
“Under the order,” explained Phuong Le, “state agencies will find ways to quiet ferries around the whales, train more commercial whale-watching boats to help respond to oil spills, and adjust fishing regulations to protect key areas and fish runs for orcas.
“Lawmakers also passed a supplemental budget that includes $1.5 million for efforts such as a boost in marine patrols to ensure that boats keep their distance from orcas, and an increase in hatchery production of salmon by an additional five million.”
Restoration of salmon essential
In 2017, Phuong Le noted, “the endangered orcas spent the fewest number of days in the central Salish Sea in four decades, mostly because there wasn’t enough salmon to eat, according to the Center for Whale Research, which keeps the whale census for the federal government.”
Said Center for Whale Research senior scientist Ken Balcomb, “I applaud anything that helps (the orcas) through the short term, but the long term is what we really have to look at — and that’s the restoration of wild salmon stocks throughout Washington state.”
“California” sea lions
Recreational salmon fishers and people in the commercial fishing industry most vehemently blame the unfortunately named California sea lions for the depletion of salmon.
Commonly misidentified as an “invasive” species from “down south,” brought north by global warming, so-called California sea lions ranged in abundance from Alaska to the Gulf of California when first commercially hunted.
Persecuted to scarcity by the 20th century, California sea lions most visibly persisted at several California rookeries, but never actually vacated any of their habitat. The current California sea lion population may be the highest within living memory, yet is almost certainly still far below the numbers that the Wilkes expedition observed.
Conceded the March 27, 2018 edition of the Chinook Observer, serving the fishing industry, “Predation on young salmon in past years is an unquantifiable aspect of this year’s problems. More important has been the now-dissipating too-warm water off the Northwest coast.
“By lowering the amount of nutritious plankton and other sea life at the base of the food chain, this phenomenon thoroughly rattled the delicate balance on which salmon and other higher orders of life depend.”
Agreed Q13-Fox News, which like the rest of the Fox network tends to avoid recognition of global warming, “Warm waters, flooding rivers and habitat loss have cut the number of salmon returning to the state’s waterways. Quotas of chinook fishing off the Washington coast will be cut nearly 40% from last year.”
Ghost shrimp & grey whales
While J, K, and L pods struggle to find enough to eat, the dozen-odd visiting grey whales are fattening up on plentiful ghost shrimp––and this offers an example for successful recovery of J, K, and L pods, if the political will exists to rebuild them.
Grey whales, a much older species than orcas, have migrated along the Pacific Northwest coast, from their winter breeding location in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, Mexico, to summer feeding areas in the Gulf of Alaska for at least 120,000 years.
The annual grey whale trek began long before glaciation and subterranean faults created the Salish Sea, including Puget Sound and the Saratoga Passage, as they have existed throughout human habitation.
But, nearly hunted to extinction during the 19th century, grey whales until relatively recently were seldom documented within Puget Sound.
While preserving fishing rights were the first consideration for most of the Native American tribes of Puget Sound when brought into the U.S. by treaty, only the Makah tribe, occupying the outermost tip of the Olympic peninsula, retained a right to hunt whales.
The Makah had historically killed and eaten grey whales who became stranded in rough weather while trying to navigate the fierce currents where Puget Sound meets the Pacific, and kept the right to kill whales in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, negotiated at a time when whaling was still a major U.S. industry.
As the grey whale migrations dwindled, however, there were fewer strandings. The commercial whaling industry moved farther offshore and then faded out. The Makah had all but quit whaling by the dawn of the 20th century, killing one last grey whale in 1928, and then no more for 71 years.
55 years from protection to return
Grey whales were belatedly protected by U.S. legislation in 1936, and by the League of Nations in 1937. Formed by the United Nations in 1946, the International Whaling Commission protected grey whales in 1949. Despite these efforts, grey whales remained a U.S.-recognized endangered species until 1995.
The first grey whales seen anywhere near the Saratoga Passage in recorded observation appeared in the Snohomish River delta, on the inland side of Camano Island, in 1990, according to Cascadia Research Collective marine mammologist John Calambokidis.
Calambokidis has followed the local grey whales ever since.
Those first grey whales reportedly left 2,700 to 3,200 feeding pits, scooping up perhaps a dozen tons of shrimp, Calambokidis and other scientists calculated.
The whales brought family and friends in 1991, who left 19,000 feeding pits in the same mud flats.
Orca Network cofounders Howard Garrett and Susan Berta first saw grey whales in the Saratoga Passage then.
By 2012 about a dozen individual grey whales had been identified and named from photographs of the barnacle patches, scales, and white patches on their skin.
Makah killed a whale
Each year the grey whales arrive in March, are usually seen most often in April, and migrate on by mid-May.
Beginning on the very day in 1995 when grey whales were removed from U.S. endangered species protection, the Makah tribe agitated––with support from the Japanese whaling industry––to be allowed to “resume” a commercial whaling industry it never really had in the first place. The Japanese whalers hoped to be able to force the U.S. into recognizing an indigenous “right” to kill whales off the coast of Japan as well as in Puget Sound.
But after killing one grey whale in June 1999, a public relations fiasco for the tribe, the Makah lost interest and have killed no more since.
Whaling worth more than shrimping
Grey whale visits to the Saratoga Passage seemed to decline for several years after that, until in 2013 Fred McCarthy, then mayor of Langley, the only incorporated city on the Saratoga Passage, recognized that the opportunity to see grey whales was bringing the community far more in revenue each year than the activities of five commercial shrimpers––and the shrimpers’ increasing use of hydraulic “water wands” to comb the mud flats was coinciding with fewer grey whale sightings.
McCarthy and other Langley community leaders collected a foot-thick stack of relevant research about the relationship of grey whales and ghost shrimp and sent it to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
Discovering that it had authorized commercial shrimping based on outdated information, the Washington DNR closed ghost shrimp harvesting on Earth Day, April 22, 2014.
Fish & whales, or exploitation?
Bringing back the grey whales to the abundance visible in 2018, when ANIMALS 24-7 observed as many as three at a time at Hidden Beach and saw grey whales five times in seven days, took just four years from beginning to protect their food source.
The Washington state, federal, and local governments have already been struggling to bring back chinook salmon for decades, including demolishing the 100-year-old Elwa hydroelectric dam in Olympic National Park in 2011 to restore a major spawning area.
But the state has been reluctant to shut down recreational chinook salmon fishing, a multi-million-dollar component of a $38-million-a-year sport fishing industry.
Though that sounds like a lot, the Puget Sound whale-watching industry, centering on orcas, is now worth about $65-70 million per year to the Washington state economy.
The choice ahead, for the state and for the world, is the choice Fred McCarthy made in 2013:
To keep a traditional but unsustainable industry based on resource exploitation, or to keep whales, which mostly requires only keeping healthy habitat, to our own benefit as well as the benefit of the biggest creatures with whom we share our planet.