Port of Port Townsend aims to develop joint request to help orcas

PORT TOWNSEND — The three Port of Port Townsend commissioners, concerned about the number of chinook salmon available for the declining southern resident orca population, have agreed to direct port staff to arrange a conference call with other regional port directors and develop a joint letter.

The letter would be sent to Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force and other entities.

Commissioners also will discuss a request to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to increase regional U.S. hatchery production to ensure an abundant food source for the orcas, and to work with Canadian authorities to contribute to the solution.

Commissioner Steve Tucker read a letter Wednesday from Todd Nicholson, executive director of the Port of Friday Harbor, requesting that the Port of Port Townsend urge that chinook beset aside for the orcas, and forwarded a text of a resolution that is being considered by the Port of Friday Harbor.

The letter also was sent to the ports of Port Angeles, Bellingham and Anacortes, and to the state Public Ports Association.

Nicholson wrote that a healthy orca needs 18 to 25 adult salmon every day to meet its energy requirements.

“If the 75 living [southern resident orcas] feed for 100 days in local waters, that means that, based on 20 salmon per day, at least 150,000 chinook are needed just to maintain the status quo,” Nicholson said. “If the orca remain longer, as they have in many years, or if their numbers increase, more fish would be needed.

“Currently the council allocates salmon for spawning, tribal catch, commercial catch and sport catch. The fish that the whales need is hidden in what’s termed ‘ocean loss,’ a percentage of the total run that fluctuates every day. Whales have to compete with other user groups for their daily food and its allotment is not guaranteed.”

“The Port of Friday Harbor respectfully requests that the Pacific Fisheries Management Council set aside an allocation of 250,000 chinook salmon from the Fraser River for the endangered” orcas, the letter said.

It added that the fixed allocation of chinook salmon separate from the general ocean escapement.

The Pacific Fisheries Management Council has jurisdiction over fisheries in Washington, Oregon and California. The Fraser River is in British Columbia.

Nicholson cited the “moral imperative to take actions to protect our whales.” He said orcas have a substantial impact on the regional economy.

Dozens of whale watching boats employing hundreds of people contribute to the local economy and pump revenue into the state via licensing and sales taxes, Nicholson said.

Commissioner Pete Hanke’s family operates Puget Sound Express, a local whale-watching business. In response to questions from commissioners Tucker and Bill Putney, Hanke told of the company’s experience.

“We regularly watch 140 other orcas that are transient,” Hanke said. “Their presence in the Salish Sea from Olympia to Vancouver out to the ocean is much more prevalent than the [southern resident orcas].

“We looked recently at the number of days that we actually watched [southern resident orcas]. We are at 350 to 400 departures this year. Of that, we watched them 36 times. We’ve seen lots of other whales. Our economy won’t be affected.”

Hanke said the southern resident orcas are “spending a lot more time in Tofino, B.C., where the salmon are bigger and more plentiful.”

Hanke urged advocating for more hatchery production.

“Turn the hatcheries on, go full bore, get a lot of fish in the water,”he aid. “Why not? It’s not going to hurt anything. The idea of keeping this native thing going is short-sighted. There’s a lot of science out there that questions whether the [southern resident orcas] will survive at any rate.”

Hanke also said that he believes the Fraser River to be of the most polluted rivers in the region.

“The salmon coming out of the river are quite high in PCBs and contribute a lot of damage to the [southern resident orcas],” Hanke said. “So saying we want to get more fish out of the Fraser River doesn’t really solve the problem.

“The city of Vancouver has to clean up the river, and no one is talking to them about it,” he said.

A draft report on southern resident orca recovery from the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force is due Oct. 1 and a final report by Nov. 1. Public comment is being taken now. See https://tinyurl.com/PDN-Orca.

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Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected].

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