Orca task force promises bold actions to save dying species, but will it deliver?

SAN JUAN ISLAND, Wash. -- Some say a task force is all talk, but if action is not taken soon, this will be the last generation of southern resident killer whales.

Nearly four dozen stakeholders make up Gov. Jay Inslee's orca task force. There are also three working groups to address three threats to whales: Vessels, prey and contaminants.

The group has until Oct. 1 to give Inslee a draft report of its recommendations to save the species.

The sight of a southern resident killer whale is enough to draw in visitors from as far away as Long Island, N.Y.

"It would just be, absolutely, the pinnacle of my trip, just amazing just to see it," Theresa Mullin said at a lookout on San Juan Island. She brought her entire family from Long Island to visit the Pacific Northwest.

Her goal is to see the southern residents, but in the San Juan Islands, people are seeing them less and less.

"This May was the first May on record that we had zero days of southern residents," Jeff Friedman said. He's president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

Studies have found that excessive boat noise can make it harder for whales to find food using echolocation. Because of that, some would argue that Friedman’s industry is part of the problem.

He’s serving on Gov. Inslee’s task force to prove otherwise.

"We’re the most progressive and well organized whale watching industry on the planet," Friedman said. "We have guidelines that far exceed federal, state and provincial regulations."

These guidelines include slow speed zones and time limits on watching any group of whales.

There’s one scientific problem with blaming vessels for the demise of southern residents.

"We’re seeing the Bigg’s killer whales, the transient orcas, more than we’ve ever seen them before, and they’re thriving," Friedman said.

In transient killer whales, researchers find the ideal case study. Like the southern residents, they deal with the same pollution and boat noise in the greater Puget Sound. But for them, right now it's a nonissue because unlike southern residents, they feed on seals and sea lions, of which there are plenty.

For southern residents, their food source is scarce. Chinook salmon is endangered just like them.

In Friday Harbor, orca researcher Ken Balcomb shows Q13 News correspondent Simone Del Rosario a skull of a transient killer whale. It's displayed at his Orca Survey Outreach and Education Center.

"So he’s very robust; big bones, big teeth," he explained.

Balcomb said the transient killer whale is built to eat other mammals, but southern residents can’t make the switch.

"If they bit a seal, they’d break their jaw and they probably wouldn’t have enough tooth structure to hang onto them," Balcomb said.

For him, the focus for saving the southern residents is simple.

"We gotta deal with the Chinook issue, there’s no question about it," he said.

But there are plenty of questions on how to do it.

"In the short term, there’s actions we can take like adjusting hatchery production, but in the long term we know we’re going to need habitat restoration," said Lynne Barre, who works for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and is a federal voice on the governor’s task force.

She said Inslee is looking for them to make bold moves.

"It’s going to be challenging and some of those actions are going to be less popular with some stakeholder groups," she said.

Those actions could include breaching four dams in the lower Snake River.

According to Bonneville Power Administration, the Columbia River basin produces more hydropower than any other river system in North America.

But according to Balcomb, it also used to produce a lot more Chinook.

"The biggest watershed was in the Columbia and Snake River basin," he said. "That was 12 million fish, that was a huge amount of fish. Damming those rivers up and preventing access to their spawning grounds was the coup de grace for Chinook salmon."

In other words, a deadly blow. Turning off the turbines could restore habitat but it would come at a cost.

"We're going to make them as bold as we can," said task force co-chair Stephanie Solien about the group's recommendations.

Del Rosario sat down with Solien to see if dams are on the table.

Solien: Well everything is on the table, and we’re looking at dams and their impacts. There are a lot of people who believe those dams are important to their livelihoods. You have other people who feel if those dams would come down, it would do a great deal to restore habitat for salmon.

Del Rosario: Where do you stand?

Solien: I am not taking a position right now. I am waiting to see where the task force is going to go.

Del Rosario: If the science says this will help restore the habitat, save the Chinook and save the orcas, does the task force have the will to go up against tough bodies like Bonneville Power to make that happen?

Solien: I don’t know, I just don’t know at this point. It’s hard to comment on until we’re at that place but really what we’re looking at now is the larger Salish Sea. There are lots of things we can do here that are challenging but not quite the heavy lift politically.

Del Rosario: I’m hearing two different things. I'm hearing we want to take really bold actions and then I’m hearing, well, maybe that’s too heavy of a lift.

Solien: Well in the short term we’ve got to be looking at what is going to have the quickest impact in the next two years. The whole debate around dams is something that is longer term, it’s not an easy fix. You’ve got complicated politics and that’s not going to save the orca in the next two years.

Del Rosario: Not in the next two years but you said the task force would go there.

Solien: I said that everything’s on the table.

The task force is required to recommend long term solutions, but one thing is true: The southern residents don’t have much time for results.

"We’ve got maybe, at most, five more years of reproductive life in this population to make it happen and if we don’t do it in that five years, it ain’t gonna happen," Balcomb said.

For a man who has spent more than four decades tracking southern residents for the government, his role on the task force is conditional.

"If we don’t have a decision that’s leaning heavily on prey restoration and is still going in all of these directions of toxins and vessels and four Hs -- hatchery, habitat, harvest, hydropower -- I’ll just throw up my hands and I’ll count whales until we get down to 70 and then I’ll give the project back to the government."

It's a government tasked with protecting this Puget Sound icon.

On Thursday, July 26, at 4 p.m., Gov. Jay Inslee joins us live on Q13 News to discuss the task force. 

This story is part of a Q13 News series, "The Last Generation?"