The session was opened by Dave Ellifrit, a biologist from the Center For Whale Research. The current count for the endangered Southern Resident community of orca whales is 83- meaning that there is a loss of seven whales since last fall, with J pod appearing to be the strongest of the three in terms of overall survival these past few years. Of interest, Dave mentioned that this year was the first time scientists actually watched a whale (L106) seemingly fill back out after having been watched for what is called "peanut head." There is usually a thick layer of blubber just behind the skull, which begins to deteriorate, forming what appears to be an indentation- a dip right behind the blow-hole. Scientists believe that the "deterioration" collaborates with starvation- for whatever reason (ie: decline in fish populations, a sickness, etc)- but the whales seen losing that blubber layer are monitored closely for emaciation. This year, L 106 beat the odds and apparently restored the blubber layer!
Salmon Recovery in the San Juan Islands
Next we were treated to an hour of discussion lead by Barbara Rosenkotter, the San Juan County Lead Entity Coordinator for the Salmon Recovery Program. Because of their location, the San Juan Islands serve as a critical habitat for the young salmon heading from their fresh water birthplaces out to the open sea. It is here that the young fish live and grow strong enough to survive their lifespan at sea and it is in these waters when they will live, forage and be protected from predators. As well, many of our beaches provide critical habitat for spawning forage fishes such as sand lance and Pacific surf smelt. Forage fishes are a major food source for salmon.
At this point in time, we are looking at Chinook having been listed as endangered in 1999, the Southern Resident Orcas in 2007 and steelhead in May of 2007. Currently, there is only 10% of the historic numbers of Chinook in the waters in and around the Islands. While studies suggest that Dams kill nearly 92% of young salmon headed downstream and 25% of spawning adults headed up, we still need to be mindful of our footprint on the delicate ecosystem in which we coexist. Research has not yet been directed towards an understanding of the most effective ways to protect and restore marine and nearshore habitats for salmon recovery. What is known is that human activities in the watershed - from the uplands to the marine waters - can significantly alter ecosystem processes and habitats needed for salmon in the region. Our local strategy is to focus first on filling gaps in knowledge about nearshore contributions to migratory salmon and other aspects of nearshore habitats and utilize this information to enhance protection measures and identify and prioritize restoration activities.
Orcas face a daunting array of threats to survival, including ship traffic, reduced abundance of prey and environmental contamination- not the least of which are PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls ). PCBs make whales more vulnerable to infectious disease, impair reproduction, and impede normal growth and development. Our whales don't need voices to tell us about their experience of eating the salmon in these waters and the levels of hazardous waste they hold in their blubber layers. Remember, a geologist must clean up a particle of soil so that it contains less than 1 ppm. Male orcas in our resident whales contain 150 ppm and females, 50ppm- (reduced through maternal transfer when feeding their young- so each new baby whale is fed PCB laden mother's milk.)
According to Kristen Burgess, a geologist charged with consulting with the EPA on major superfund clean ups, the Puget sound basin has 16 superfund sites containing PCBs- most of them huge military fortresses which once served as the naval military hub during between the late 1800's and mid 1900's. While clean up is progress, the PCB's continue to steep into the waters of the Puget Sound, which does not have enough tidal backwash to really ever decontaminate itself. However, the government allows sediment profiling (basically monitoring over the years- just taking down numbers) to serve as a justifiable method of adhering to clean ups- without really ever forcing the clean up to continue. Kristen was pretty clear that the EPA needs to change their model for true reduction in PCB's to take place in the area. And in the meantime, don't eat the shellfish unless you answered the first question here as "I like to glow in the dark."
Stay tuned, I am sure there is more to come. But overall, this was a sobering day- a lot of information to absorb- most of which left me feeling pretty helpless about the whales and our own habitat. I do intend to look onto the Puget Sound Partnership Efforts. Tell the Puget Sound Partnership what you think: Speak up for real actions to restore the Sound to health.