Tons of Trouble

Saving Puget Sound's endangered orcas won't be easy. Beyond toxins, harassment, and global warming, they face developer lawsuits and possibly those infamous Snake River dams.

It was one of those classic Obtuse Seattle Liberal moments: Back in the summer of 2000, the City Council jumped into the controversy over salmon-killing dams on the Snake River in Eastern Washington by approving, 8-0, a resolution favoring dismantling the dams. It was dressed in woolly “we’re all one big ecosystem” language and well intended, but it was also a disaster.

What the council failed to reckon with was that the fight over these same dams had come to symbolize, for Eastern Washingtonians, urban liberals’ malign neglect of their rural way of life. And since the Snake River empties into the Columbia, and the Columbia’s waters run nowhere near Puget Sound, it seemed a pretty cut-and-dried case of Seattle sticking its nose into other communities’ affairs.

So, rather predictably, a wave of condemnation followed: The council was scolded publicly and told to “mind its own business” on the pages of both the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times, and radio talkers, especially the right-wing variety, had a field day. Some 11 communities and two counties passed resolutions condemning Seattle’s. A Pasco City Council member even proposed breaching Seattle’s Ballard Locks in response.

The uproar persuaded some council members to try to mend political fences by touring the dams and telling the press that “we made a mistake” (in the words of Richard Conlin). But the outrage really never went away. To this day, radio talkers and columnists trot out the resolution as emblematic of Seattle’s brie-and-wine style of provinciality and smug disdain for its eastern neighbors.

Counting fish at Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River.

Jeff T. Green / Getty Images

Six years and an orca endangered-species listing later, it’s starting to look like the council may have been on the right track after all Evidence is starting to mount that those Columbia River salmon—especially the spring chinook runs that have been most harmed by the Snake River dams—could play a critical role in the survival of the killer-whale population that resides primarily in Puget Sound. And that means that recovery programs for the orcas will, at the very least, increase scrutiny of the role of the dams in the whales’ survival, and could decide their fate.

The southern resident orcas—about 90 whales comprising the J, K, and L pods— officially became listed as an endangered species last week by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which announced the decision in November after years of pressure from environmental and orca- advocacy groups. The announcement was generally greeted with fulsome praise in the local press and among civic leaders. After all, not only are the whales now a million-dollar ecotourist attraction, they’re a regional icon, part of the Northwest identity.

It hasn’t hurt that, from outward appearances at least, the orca listing doesn’t change things a lot as far as recovery programs go. This is largely because the cornerstone of any orca-recovery program is going to focus on restoring salmon runs—and the work for doing that is, in many regards, already well under way.

However, the potential reach of the listing is much broader—which may explain why it is already in the sights of industry.

The Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River near Pasco.

Jeff T. Green / Getty Images

Killer whales are prodigious eaters—their daily food requirements are between 4 percent and 5 percent of their body weight, and adult males can weigh up to 12,800 pounds. For the southern resident population in Puget Sound, which consumes fish almost exclusively, that means a single adult orca will eat between 28 and 34 salmon a day.

Probably the best demonstration of their voraciousness occurred at Dyes Inlet near Port Orchard in 1997, when a contingent of 19 L Pod orcas hung out at the mouth of the inlet for two months and consumed nearly the entirety of a substantial run of chum salmon.

That event—notable not least because L Pod rarely strays that far south in the Sound—appeared to signal that the southern residents were having real trouble finding enough food to eat. Over the next five years, the population of southern residents began to decline precipitously, from nearly 100 in the early 1990s to 79 by 2001.

Scientists grew concerned that if the declines continued, the whales would no longer have a viable gene pool and would soon tumble into an inevitable downward population spiral. The southern residents are genetically isolated; even though other killer whales (called “transients”) visit their waters to feed on large sea mammals like seals and sea lions, there is no social interaction or apparent communication between them. Their respective languages are completely different, and genetic samples indicate there has been no intermingling for thousands of years. So the presence of a substantial coastal population of orcas means little to the killer whales who reside in Puget Sound for much of the year.

Recognizing that this was indeed a distinct population proved key in NMFS’s decision to list the orcas as endangered, since their previous approach had been to consider them simply a subset of the larger coastal population. The sharpness of the 1990s declines also made plain how vulnerable to extinction the orcas are.

Those declines, almost certainly not coincidentally, occurred simultaneously with large drops in salmon stocks. So while the NMFS recovery program recognizes that the whales actually face a variety of threats to their well-being—including high levels of toxins in their waters and concomitantly their food, as well as the problems posed by boat-traffic noise and the hordes of adoring whale watchers who now accompany them throughout much of the summer— it’s also clear that the cornerstone of any recovery for the orcas lies with having enough salmon for them to eat.

Those subsidiary threats are not minor. Watching the whales in summer in the San Juan Islands, accompanied by a virtual flotilla of whale-watching tour boats and private gawkers, it’s clear that there is a danger of the animals being loved to death. Whale scientists have been examining the levels of noise in the waters occupied by the whales and have begun to conclude that, at a minimum, the orcas’ hunting—based on an acutely sensitive echolocation faculty—is hampered by the presence of loud sounds, especially those emitted by passing freighters, and generic boat noise is almost certainly contributing to the problem.

The result may be further restrictions on whale-watching activities. Currently a 100-meter distance guideline is being promoted by conservationists and state officials, but it’s merely a guideline. Private boaters—sport fishermen in particular—have the right to ignore it if they choose. Whale-watching businesses likewise operate under a system of voluntary guidelines that are fairly restrictive, and that effort has been relatively successful in establishing a conscientious whale-watching ethos among the tour outfits. But more restrictions— perhaps including fines for violators—may be on the way.

The toxin problem is even more substantial. Whales are long-lived (some females have been known to live into their 80s), and the whales store the toxins they accumulate from their prey in their considerable layers of blubber. When a transient orca washed up on an Olympic Peninsula beach in 2002, state officials found the PCB levels in its body were about 1,000 parts PCB per million parts of fat—completely off the charts—and were forced to treat the carcass itself as toxic waste, requiring a fully suited disposal unit.

Toxins are also a significant problem when it comes to reproduction, because while males will store toxins throughout their lives, the females do pass off some of the toxins through their milk. As a result, infants are being fed large amounts of toxins that contribute to the high mortality rate seen in young Puget Sound orcas in recent years.

Whales store toxins they accumulate from their prey in layers of blubber. When orcas run out of food, they begin burning fat reserves, and the stored toxins begin circulating in their systems and poisoning them.

The larger problem of salmon abundance, however, is intertwined with these issues as well. Noise in the water is mostly a problem for orcas when they are already stressed searching for scarce salmon; it just makes their work that much harder. More importantly, when orcas run out of food, their bodies begin burning their fat reserves, and those stored toxins begin circulating in their systems and poisoning them.

So the listing of the southern residents under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) means that many of the efforts currently under way on behalf of the orcas—officials from the community-based Shared Strategy for Puget Sound just last week announced a $1 billion Puget Sound salmon recovery plan—will have even more teeth, so to speak. Many of these plans include placing restrictions on development in sensitive areas and limiting runoff from urban areas into the orcas’ waters.

Moreover, NMFS’s orca-recovery plan specifically requires “expansion of local land-use planning and control, including management of future growth and development.” That will immediately affect developers and the construction industry, as well as various property owners whose lands are in areas that either affect salmon runs or orca habitat, which is much of the Sound.

An immediate example of the potential effects can be found on Maury Island, where Glacier Northwest’s proposed expansion of its gravel-mining operation has already run into considerable opposition. Since the orcas—in particular, J Pod during the winter months—are known to feed in the waters off southern Vashon Island, Glacier’s plans are likely to run into direct conflict with the ESA listing.

“The Maury Island area is essentially critical habitat to killer whales during the late fall and early winter months,” says David Bain, a University of Washington orca researcher. “There’s the issue of putting in a physical barrier there by building the dock out. There’d be additional noise from the tugs running back and forth, and how much of a problem that is depends on how often those run. And the third issue on the whale side is how much noise the loading process is going to make.

“All that would be the kind of noise that killer whales are unfamiliar with, and it could turn them away. And if they don’t go past the south end of Vashon Island, they may lose a lot of their winter feeding range. For a population that probably doesn’t have enough to eat as it is, that’s a serious problem.”

Bain adds that the near-shore waters of Vashon and Maury have been identified as potentially beneficial for chinook salmon recovery. “[A]nything that hurts the chinook will hurt the whales, because that seems to be what they’re relying on.”

Some of the listing’s other foreseeable effects include:

  • Examining the adequacy of wastewater-treatment plants in the region and perhaps requiring upgrades.
  • Doing something to stop wastes from being dumped into the Sound by cruise ships.
  • Potential regulations for whale- watching operations.
  • Enhancing cleanup efforts at toxic-waste sites, particularly those containing PCBs.

There are also changes in store for the bureaucracy. “I think there are two major differences between the handling that these guys got under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the protection that you get under the Endangered Species Act— not in terms of protection, but in terms of changes that will take place,” says NMFS spokesperson Brian Gorman. “No. 1, for the first time, other federal agencies have to come to us with actions that might affect killer whales and get, in effect, permission from us.

Dams themselves are obstacles enough for migrating fish, but the flatwater they create behind them is even more problematic, especially for smolt, which require fast-moving water to migrate effectively.

“The second really huge thing, although nobody really talks about it, is the ability of third parties to sue. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, if somebody thought, ‘You guys are just ignoring your obligations under the law,’ that was the end of it. They could write us a letter, they could complain to their congressman, but they couldn’t sue us. Under the Endangered Species Act, the builders’ association or People for Puget Sound could sue us because they could claim that we’ve done the wrong thing—granted a permit we shouldn’t have, or our regulations are too draconian, or any number of things. So I expect there will be more litigation in the future. And I expect, too, that whatever regulations we put into effect or any biological opinions that we write will be very carefully thought out, because of the likelihood of litigation.”

Not surprisingly, development and construction interests, in fact, have weighed in. Earlier this month, the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) filed a notification that it intends to file a lawsuit contesting the listing.

BIAW attorney Tom Harris told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that it was “an unlawful listing,” adding: “You can almost say any individual school of fish can be listed.” So far, however, the BIAW has not offered any scientific support for its position.

Russ Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the BIAW and Washington Farm Bureau in the planned lawsuit, outlines the opposition’s thinking: “The fisheries service can only evaluate for listing purposes, and then list, . . . a species, a subspecies, or a distinct population segment of a species. That’s very clear under the law in the [Endangered Species Act’s] terms,” Brooks says. He claims the southern resident orcas don’t fit any of these categories, but are rather “a distinct population segment of a subspecies, which is pretty clearly not allowed under ESA case law.”

Brooks says that the opponents haven’t consulted any scientists on the matter. “We don’t really need any scientists backing us up on it, because it’s a legal argument. . . . It’s not a factual dispute, it’s not a scientific dispute, it’s a pure legal dispute.

“It’s not that we’re against orcas or anything like that. . . . It could be any other species. You know, we love orcas as much as anyone else. But here we believe there’s a much larger legal issue that is at stake, and it just happens to involve orcas.”

There may be other bones of contention with powerful interests yet to come. The ongoing dispute over the long-running practice in Victoria, B.C., of dumping raw sewage into the orcas’ habitat could intensify. And American regulators may raise concerns over management of Canada’s Fraser River fishery, which is a significant food source for the southern residents.

But the Fraser is not the only major river outside of Puget Sound whose runs are part of the orcas’ food picture. Another, in fact, may be the Columbia River.

And that opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms.

‘You know, we love orcas as much as anyone else. But here we believe there’s a much larger legal issue that is at stake, and it just happens to involve orcas.’ —Russ Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation

The problem scientists face right now when it comes to assessing how to proceed with the orcas is a lack of data. They’re unsure which salmon the orcas are eating at which times of year, and which runs are truly critical for their well-being. Underlying the uncertainty is one of the orcas’ abiding mysteries, namely, where they go and what they eat during the winter months.

What we know about the orcas is mostly based on what we observe of them when they’re in Puget Sound—and for the majority of them, that means the months of May through September. J Pod will lurk about in the Sound—they’re often observed as far south as Vashon Island in the winter months—throughout the year, though even that is sporadic. But the K and L pods, which constitute the large majority of the clan, head offshore—though no one is sure exactly where, since they spread out and are only sporadically sighted.

The first scientist to try to tackle these mysteries was John Ford, a renowned orca researcher and author and a biologist for the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans. His just-published study (Linking Prey and Population Dynamics: Did Food Limitation Cause Recent Declines of “Resident” Killer Whales in British Columbia?) found, among other things, that the southern residents range, in the winter months, from as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands (where L pod has been sighted and a K pod member washed ashore dead) to as far south as Northern California, where J pod has been sighted. But they stay relatively close to shore: None has been observed any farther from the coast than about 30 miles.

His core finding, though, was linking the whales with a particular kind of salmon: chinook. Orcas focus on them almost exclusively in the summer months, Ford found: “Chinook salmon appears to be preferred over other salmonid and nonsalmonid species due to its large body size, high lipid content, and year-round availability in the whales’ coastal habitat. Sockeye and pink salmon, which are abundant during migrations to spawning rivers in July– August, are not a significant prey species.” Some runs of chum salmon appear to be preferred in the fall.

Moreover, Ford notes, “The distribution and movement patterns of resident killer whales are consistent with what might be expected of an animal having a year-round focus on chinook salmon as preferred prey.” That is, during those winter months, they are haunting waters that are historically known to contain large runs of chinook, gathering along the coastlines on their way home to their respective rivers to spawn.

“I think there’s been a lot of assumptions over the years, and they’re very reasonable ones,” Ford said in a phone interview, “that the whales feed from the spectrum of salmonid species that are available to them, especially the most abundant ones. I guess that’s what’s really changed as a result of our work, that we’ve now convinced ourselves that, in fact, they’re very selective. It’s really chinook that seems to be of critical concern to the whales and us.”

Historically, the largest single source of chinook in the Northwest’s Pacific coastal waters during the winter and spring has been the Columbia River. The role that they could play in the orcas’ health was underscored two years ago by a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife report on killer whales that observed, “Perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s has been the decline of salmon in the Columbia River basin.”

So far, the lack of hard data keeps scientists from concretely linking the southern residents with the Columbia River chinook. But Ford says the data uncovered in his study tend to point in that direction: “Part of our study that I didn’t get into in the report is that we actually genotyped all the chinook samples we got from the whales, and we’re putting a piece together now about which river systems the whales are taking,” he says. “For example, we’ve got a fair number of chinook samples from northern residents up in the northern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands, and a substantial proportion of the salmon that the whales take up there are Columbia River fish on their southward migration.”

Ford says that the ecosystem is large enough to involve a broad range of river systems: “No doubt, there’s a lot of chinook populations that are of questionable status, and that’s the next step, to see how they can be better conserved.

“Because killer whales don’t have any predators, they are ultimately prey-limited. The question is, are they at that sort of carrying capacity? And when that carrying capacity declines unexpectedly, as it did in the late ’90s, do they suffer? It makes sense, therefore, that enhancing the availability of chinook for the whales, sort of both in quality and quantity and temporal or seasonal availability, would be a pretty reasonable recovery strategy.”

What that involves, however, is another question. “We don’t have a complete enough understanding of the whales’ diet, especially in the winter,” says Ford. “And that’s sort of what we need next to understand.”

Whale advocates say they’ve been aware of the potential connection of the orcas to the Columbia River runs for a while. “This is something I’ve been talking about for a long time,” says Howard Garrett of the Whidbey Island–based Orca Network. “We’ve known it almost intuitively. It’s been part of my regular slide show. So it’s gratifying to see the scientific data supporting it.”

“To me it’s just a no-brainer,” says Darcie Larson, a board member of the Seattle chapter of the American Cetacean Society and the associate director of Save Our Wild Salmon. “It couldn’t be more plain that these killer whales have relied on salmon from the Columbia River historically, and the lack of those salmon is hurting them now.

“I think even without definitive studies, you can still clearly say that, before the time of Lewis and Clark, there were between 10 and 16 million wild fish that were returning to the mouth of the Columbia River. We know that whales are eating these fish, we know that they like chinook, and there were definitely millions of chinook that were returning to the mouth of the Columbia.”

There is also historical anecdotal evidence that puts killer whales at the mouth of the Columbia during the winter and spring months. More recently, a group of J Pod orcas was observed feeding on salmon there.

However, these remain anecdotes and intuitions. There is little hard evidence connecting the Puget Sound orcas to the Columbia River chinook.

Moreover, the mismanaged river systems aren’t the only cause of the Pacific salmon decline. Global warming has played a role as well. Recent rises in the North Pacific’s temperatures have also been blamed for depressing salmon stocks.

For that reason, Brent Norberg of the NMFS regional office was appropriately cautious. “In general, the way we have it laid out in the conservation plan, we think it’s important that healthy salmon runs be out there for the benefit of whales,” Norberg says. “And to the extent that measures are under way to try and recover those runs of salmon that are listed, we’re likely to see benefits for other runs of salmon as well.

“So from the standpoint of whales, we’re supportive of any actions that are being taken on the part of federal, state, and local governments to recover listed runs of salmon.”

However, Norberg explains, there has to be an abundance of hard data before an agency like NMFS can involve itself in the Columbia River disputes by invoking the orcas’ endangered-species status to affect salmon-recovery efforts.

“In the absence of data, there’s not a whole lot to analyze other than speculation,” he says. “But in the case of [Bonneville Power Administration] and consultations on fish, a substantial amount is known about how activities in the river affect the biology of fish. Since we have no data directly linking the fish from that system, it’s pretty tough to do an analysis.”

If they had such evidence, the first step, he says, would be to study how much benefit the whales would get from taking action to further enhance those salmon runs. “To do that with whales, you’d have to say that we have a reasonable expectation that whales are utilizing X number of fish in order to make a positive link. But basically, all we have in terms of data rightnow is that we know that killer whales swim in the same Pacific Ocean as fish from the Columbia River. There’s not a very solid link there.”

John Ford, fisheries researcher in Canada: Orcas are selective. “It’s really chinook that seems to be of critical concern to the whales and us.”

When the Columbia River fish enter the equation for orcas, their endangered-species status takes on even larger political ramifications, because that population of chinook is directly affected by those same four dams on the Snake River that have become a major battlefield in the state.

The four dams in question—Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite—were built starting in the 1960s and are located on the Snake between the Tri-Cities of Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland and Lewiston, Idaho. They provide irrigation water for a handful of large farms along the river, but their far larger role is to provide navigation for barges that provide cheap transportation of their goods downriver for the region’s farmers. The dams also generate 1,250 megawatts of power annually, enough for a city the size of Seattle.

However, they also drive salmon runs to the brink of extinction. The dams themselves are obstacles enough for migrating fish—the smolt going downriver are chewed up in their turbines, and the returning spawners have to climb past them using fish ladders—but the flatwater they create behind them is even more problematic, especially for the smolt, which require fast-moving water to migrate effectively.

Spilling water at key times of year has proved somewhat effective as a remedial step, but that also conflicts with the dams’ power-generating mission. The Bonneville Power Administration’s solution, as the lead government agency involved in the Columbia River salmon recovery, has been to gather the smolt as they head downriver and barge them around the dams—an exorbitantly expensive program that also has proved to be of questionable value, since the runs have continued to decline.

Salmon advocates like Save Our Wild Salmon have argued that tearing down the dams is the most sensible solution, since it would return that portion of the river to a free-flowing state and give both smolt and spawners a fighting chance of success. They argue that the economic costs can be overcome, pointing out that replacing the barges with a revamped rail-transportation system and simply lowering the current irrigation pumps would cost a fraction of the current barging system. Moreover, they point to larger economic benefits for the region, particularly the economic boon that could be realized from recreation.

These arguments, however, have carried little weight with Eastern Washingtonians, who have come to see the dams as emblematic of “their way of life,” and thus to be defended at all costs. When the breaching was first proposed in 1999, pro-dam rallies were held in various communities at which the rhetoric became high-pitched. Leading the way were top Republican officials, including then–U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who warned of various miseries that breaching would inflict.

“We are not going to allow a few Seattle ultraliberal environmental zealots to destroy what took generations to build,” proclaimed then–state Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, in Richland.

Dam defender and state Rep. Shirley Hankins, R-Richland: “The gun is at our heads, and we need to act right now before they pull the trigger.”

“In case you don’t understand the urgency of this, think about this: The bulldozers are coming,” said state Rep. Shirley Hankins, R-Richland. “The gun is at our heads, and we need to act right now before they pull the trigger.”

Since 2001, however, the Bush administration has opposed any breaching program, reverting to a reliance on barging. A federal judge’s May 2005 ruling that the barging program is failing, and demanding the government re-examine its salmon- recovery progress, was greeted with warnings from the Dry Side that doing so had better not put dam removal back on the table: “Changes may need to be made, but the dams are going nowhere,” said U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, the Republican who represents Eastern Washington’s 4th District.

A state-brokered accord announced last week that would spill water at critical times to aid salmon runs, while compensating farmers and finding ways to prepare for their water needs during those times, could short-circuit any conflict by bolstering salmon runs sufficiently without dam removal. Still, salmon scientists have been adamant all along that the only way to bring back the salmon runs to a modicum of health will require a free-flowing Snake River—something spills don’t achieve.

Should it emerge, however, that the orca listing indeed does affect the fate of those dams, the cultural war could reach new heights—especially since Western Washingtonians see the killer whales in a similarly iconic light.

Killer whales, after all, reside atop the Sound’s food chain, and are thus one of the real indicator species for the overall health of our inland waters. If they disappear, it will toll a death knell for our way of life.

The bigger picture, as the NMFS’s Brent Norberg suggests, is that the orca listing is already certain to have a positive impact on the Puget Sound ecosystem, and perhaps beyond it as well, by underscoring that they are simply some of the most prominent occupants of a vast and complex ecosystem—as the Seattle City Council suggested six years ago.

“I think in general what gets missed in the public mind is that there are substantial things being done already on the part of fish and clean water and so on before you ever get to the whale link,” Norberg said. “The whales, however, because of their charismatic position in the public consciousness, make a really good focal point to try and leverage more beneficial actions on the part of those other things that are already being done.

“They make a positive argument for doing things to benefit fish. They help make a positive argument for doing things to clean up persistent pollution of sediments in the water. Those are good things that are going to benefit not only the whales in the long term but other species, too.”

Including, of course, human beings. But whether that argument will carry over to the Columbia River—and Eastern Washington farmers—will depend on what scientists learn about the orcas in the coming years.

David Neiwert is a Seattle freelance journalist and author, as well as the editor of the blog Orcinus ( His most recent book is Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community.