Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Orcas and salmon

-- by Dave

It's becoming more than apparent in recent years that the Puget Sound orca population has been barely scraping by on their winter food resources, which as I reported awhile back used to consist mostly of Columbia River chinook congregating along the continental shelf. Now that those fish runs are a mere wisp of their former selves (less than 2 percent of their historic levels), the killer whales that always fed on them are having to look elsewhere.

This winter, they've once again (as they did last winter) traveled to northern California in search of chinook, as Robert McClure at the P-I reports:
In what a leading orca researcher calls an ominous sign, a group of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound and nearby waters has turned up feeding off the coast of California for the sixth winter in a row.

L pod, one of three orca families that frequent Washington waters, was spotted Sunday off Monterey Bay.

The fact that the orcas are apparently ranging farther than they once did suggests that Washington's winter stocks of chinook, the orcas' main food, have dropped too low to support them, said Ken Balcomb, a San Juan Island scientist who has studied the orcas since mid-1970s.

Now, if the orcas want to eat, "they've got to go somewhere else," said Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research.

Solving the problem might require a moratorium on salmon fishing for several years, Balcomb wrote in a statement released Monday by the research center.

"The path society is on, according to fisheries experts, is that chinook stocks will be driven to extinction before the end of this century," Balcomb wrote. "We consider that ... worse news for fishermen than a few years of closure to allow stocks the best opportunity to recover."

Problem is, those northern California stocks are in nearly as bad of shape:
The number of chinook salmon returning to California's Central Valley has reached a near-record low, pointing to an "unprecedented collapse" that could lead to severe restrictions on West Coast salmon fishing this year, according to federal fishery regulators.

The sharp drop in chinook, or "king," salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in the Sacramento River and its tributaries last fall is part of broader decline in wild salmon runs in rivers across the West.

The population dropped more than 88 percent from its all-time high five years ago, according to an internal memo sent to members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council and obtained by The Associated Press.

Regulators are still trying to understand the reasons for the shrinking number of spawners; some scientists believe it could be related to changes in the ocean linked to global warming.

Some fishermen and environmentalists believe the sharp decline is related to increased water exports from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, which supplies drinking water to millions of people in dry Southern California, as well as irrigation for America's most fertile farming region.

"It's time to reduce pumping of delta waters before we destroy the fish and wildlife species we appreciate so much in California," said Mike Sherwood, an attorney for Earthjustice.

Remember that these waters were also the scene of the West's largest fish kill ever when Klamath Valley irrigators, pumped up by Patriot types, managed to turn off the water downstream during critical periods. That was brought to us courtesy of Dick Cheney himself.

I agree with Balcomb that a moratorium is necessary for restoring Puget Sound stocks. But as I noted in my report for Seattle Weekly, they're going to have to do something about the Columbia chinook stocks too. And that means looking, once again, at tearing down those dams on the Snake, much beloved of Dick Cheney and inland Republicans.

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