Friday, October 29, 2010

Orcas and Salmon: organizations take aim at U.S. plan that could impact Washington/Oregon whales

Here is information from Howard Garret of the Orca Network regarding action being taken against a proposed conservation plan for salmon in the northwest U.S.'s Columbia Basin (where the Columbia and Snake River end at the Pacific coast of Oregon and Washington). Apparently, the plan contradicts existing science regarding the impact of a decline on salmon on the resident orca population.

"On October 29, salmon advocates asked a federal judge to reject the Obama Administration’s 2010 Plan for Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead. This includes chinook salmon that are essential nutrition for our Southern Resident Killer Whales. Today, three facts are clear. One, our orca are often very hungry. Two, they historically dined regularly on Columbia Basin chinook – especially in the lean months of March and April. Three, by failing endangered salmon, the 2010 Plan will also fail our endangered orcas.

The endangered Southern Resident orca community declined over 20% a decade ago and still teeters on the brink of extinction. Multiple studies tell us why: inadequate runs of Chinook salmon. For thousands of years this unique and cohesive orca clan has survived almost entirely on king salmon, especially those returning to the Columbia basin during winter and spring. In the past few decades those Chinook runs have dwindled to a small percentage of their former numbers. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) notes that 'Perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late1800s has been the decline of salmon in the Columbia River basin' (p. 95).

We expected more from NOAA and the Obama administration when they released their Columbia Basin salmon plan as required by the Endangered Species Act. On inauguration day, we were told that good science would trump biased economics and DC politics, and that the process would be transparent. Instead we got a repeat of the corrupt Bush plan and secrecy rather than honesty, despite fierce criticism of that status quo plan from the American Fisheries Society, a wide range of independent biologists, and NOAA’s own scientists.

Regarding orcas specifically, NOAA also fails to explain the huge discrepancy between their 2010 Columbia Basin salmon plan and their 2009 California salmon plan. The CA plan says hatchery fish are no substitute for wild salmon, that orcas need viable wild salmon runs, and there are far too few today. The Columbia plan inexplicably says that hatchery fish are a reliable replacement for wild salmon, and suggests that there are plenty of salmon for orca survival. Despite repeated requests to NOAA to address and resolve this inconsistency, none has been offered.

There is no doubt in the scientific community about the ecological connection between Columbia/Snake salmon and our much-loved orcas. Canada’s DFO found '…that [orca] survival rates are strongly correlated with the availability of their principal prey species, chinook salmon.' A study concluded that 'Chinook salmon, a relatively rare species, was by far the most frequent prey item.' Winter field studies have also found Southern Resident orcas near the mouth the Columbia River eating salmon headed upriver. UW’s Center for Conservation Biology conducted a multi-year orca study of hormones found in fecal material and concluded that: 'Thus far, the hormone data most strongly supports the reduced prey hypothesis' and that 'For now, it seems clear that mitigation efforts to increase number and quality of available prey to Southern resident killer whales will be an important first step towards assuring SRKW recovery.'

Let’s hope that the judge buries this deceptive plan in early 2011, and brings the federal government and the people of the Northwest together to craft a legal, science-based plan that serves our salmon, our communities, and our orcas.

For more information, please visit: Save Our Wild Salmon and the Orca Network."

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