THEY SAY THE good die young, but there are exceptions.
The oldest orca in Puget Sound is missing and presumed dead.
She was nicknamed “Granny” by the whale researchers who followed her and her family for years.
They figure Granny was born sometime around 1911, which would coincide with the Pacific Northwest version of the Industrial Revolution, a term that is synonymous with the coming of the railroad.
In 1913, the Canadian Pacific Railway was blasting a grade above Hell’s Gate on the Fraser River, which caused a slide that blocked the river to fish passage.
This was a rough break for the whales, whose food source was already being eliminated with the introduction of the purse seine net to Puget Sound in the 1890s.
The purse seine net captured entire schools of salmon for what was the largest salmon industry in the world with hundreds of canneries and many thousands of fishers and shoreworkers.
With the coming of the railroad, we started damming the salmon rivers for electricity, industrial water use, flood control and irrigation.
In 1913, we dammed the Elwha without fish passage, a practice that continued throughout the region with the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River beginning in 1933.
Meanwhile, the purse seine fleet in Puget Sound was joined by gill netters, reef netters and offshore salmon trollers to the point where too few fish were making it back to the spawning grounds.
During the 1940s, industrial production in the Puget Sound Basin was vastly expanded, creating a heritage of toxic waste sites that we are still trying to clean up.
The post-war boom in America created an even greater demand for salmon.
The commercial fishing fleet was joined by numerous sport fishing resorts where people, including Hollywood celebrities John Wayne, Bing Crosby and others, traveled to Washington, the so-called, “Salmon Capital of the World.”
Sport hunting even took a shot at the orca.
In his book “Professional Guide’s Manual,” George Herter describes the killer whale as “the most dangerous big game animal in the world.”
The lower jaw was the esteemed trophy.
Fortunately, Herter said he was too afraid of killer whales to collect one for his own den.
Then the orca became prey for a new kind of predator.
In November 1961, an orca was caught by Marineland of the Pacific in Los Angeles.
When she was put into the aquarium, Wanda crashed into the walls and died in the first few days.
Eventually, 70 killer whales were taken for exhibition in aquariums with a disturbingly high casualty rate until public outrage prompted the passage of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which effectively stopped the capture of Pacific orcas.
Meanwhile, the fish war between the U.S. and Canada, in which each side tried to catch the other’s fish, was joined by the 1974 Boldt decision, which resulted in the Treaty Tribes of Washington and the non-treaty commercial fleet competing for what was left.
As the human population of Puget Sound increased, sewage and industrial waste facilities flooded the water to the point where a chemical stew of mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and pharmaceutical and recreational drugs have been found in fish.
In certain waters, it is not recommended that humans eat more than two or three servings per week.
The captive orca Namu, who died in a pen at the Seattle waterfront, ate 400 pounds of salmon per day.
With the salmon being threatened and/or endangered, there’s few fish left for the remaining 78 Puget Sound orcas.
It’s a wonder Granny lived as long as she did.
Pat Neal is a fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected].