PAT NEAL: The Orca Task Force

Last week we examined the tragic results of capturing the orca for captivity in theme parks and aquariums, where an estimated 164 captive orca died from pneumonia and septicemia.

This number represents more than twice the number of Southern Resident Orca currently surviving in the wild.

In 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee said, “Protecting and restoring the complex ecosystem these beautiful animals rely on will take a lot of work. There are no do-overs with the orcas.”

That year, the Orca Task Force was formed to save them from being starved, poisoned and rammed by ships. Four recommendations included increasing the abundance of Chinook salmon, decreasing disturbance and other risks posed by vessel traffic and noise, reducing exposure to toxic pollutants for orca and their prey, and ensuring adequate funding and accountability measures are in place to support effective recovery efforts.

Let’s see how many of the Orca Task Force recommendations have been implemented so far.

Coincidentally, the biggest salmon restoration experiment in the world, the Elwha Dam removal, received another set-back just last week.

The myriad co-managers announced that the fishing moratorium on the Elwha would be extended for another year due to the failure of salmon to reach the upper river.

That was the whole point in removing the dams in the first place — to get the fish up into the miles of pristine habitat the dams blocked since 1913. That was the year the first fish hatchery was built on the Elwha.

The famed 100-pound salmon of the Elwha are extinct.

The river has been planted with hatchery fish for over 100 years.

The so-called wild fish in the Elwha are either hatchery fish that haven’t had their adipose fin clipped or the feral progeny of hatchery fish that spawned in the river.

The co-managers of the Elwha decided to plant log jams instead of fish and let the upper Elwha restore itself. Ditto the Dungeness River, where a hatchery has been in operation since 1905, rearing up to 12 million salmon per year.

Until the co-managers decided we would rather have the extinct native salmon on paper than hatchery fish in the river. We’ll take restoring chinook off the Orca Task Force table.

Forget about decreasing noise and other risks to orca due to shipping.

Every year about 11,000 deep draft vessels transit the Strait of Juan de Fuca, burning bunker oil, making noise and ramming any whale unlucky enough to be sleeping on the surface.

The number of ships will only increase with faster, larger vessels, according to the Port of Seattle’s expansion plans on Elliott Bay for dredging and building new facilities for more and bigger ships.

So, we’ll take decreasing vessel and traffic noise off the Orca Task Force table.

Reducing marine toxins that affect the orca and their prey is another non-starter.

We annually pump an estimated 97,000 pounds of drugs, hormones and personal care product residues in the sewage that flows through the 106 publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants in Puget Sound.

In addition, cleaning the remains of our extinct industries has been a fuse that’s worse than the bomb, spewing acidic plumes of precipitate metals, destroying entire ecosystems in the process.

As for funding and accountability for the orca, money is not a problem.

Measuring the accountability from the millions of dollars we’ve spent on failed salmon restoration efforts is.

We’ll take accountability off the Orca Task Force Table.

Only one goal of the Orca Task Force has been achieved: adequate funding.

Before the orca spiral further down the drain of extinction, maybe we should appoint another task force.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via [email protected].

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