PAT NEAL: There are no do-overs with the orcas

IT WAS ANOTHER tough week in the news.

It’s bad enough enduring endless images of war, pestilence and medieval corruption in a modern setting but lately we’ve had a front row seat to a mother’s grief at the death of her offspring as the world’s attention was rivetted to the tragic spectacle of a female orca swimming along the surface of the Salish Sea keeping her dead offspring afloat.

Meanwhile biologists are scrambling to save the emaciated 4-year-old female orca known as J50 who is sick, starving and now missing from the rest of the dwindling population of southern resident orcas.

Gov. Jay Inslee got it right when he said, “The recent, tragic death of the orca calf is heartbreaking and we all feel the pain of the mother and her pod.

“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. We must get this right.”

Inslee said we must preserve the complex ecosystem that supports the orca and he is right about that.

This is an ecosystem has been compromised by over-fishing, pollution and development.

Inslee mentioned restoring the salmon from the Columbia and Snake rivers that the orca depend on for food.

Removing the Snake River dams has been suggested but that would years and what’s happening with the orca is an immediate emergency.

Inslee mentioned reducing pollution, particularly carbon emissions to preserve the orca and who could be against that?

He failed to mention the estimated 97,000 pounds of drugs, hormones and personal care product residues that are pumped into the water every year by 106 publicly owned wastewater treatment plants in Puget Sound.

The chemicals are not monitored, regulated or removed from wastewater.

A landmark study by NOAA scientists found an alphabet soup of chemical residues including nicotine, caffeine, OxyContin, Paxil, Valium, Zoloft and cocaine in the tissues of young salmon that had to swim through Puget Sound.

That could explain why these young fish have such a hard time migrating out to the big world and becoming adults.

These substances are called “chemicals of concern” because their effect on fish, and human growth, behavior, reproduction and immune function is unknown.

We don’t know what levels these chemicals are present in adult fish.

We don’t know the effect on creatures who eat fish but those at the top of the food chain such as the orca and the humans would be the most vulnerable.

The governor mentioned the impact of ship noises on the orca.

He established a no-go zone for fishing boats in the San Juan Islands to allow the orca a quiet place to fish but what is that compared to the noise of the traffic jam of freighters and oil tankers that bring us everything from gasoline to Christmas decorations to our sea ports every day?

Is there anything we can do besides stop flushing our toilets and driving our cars to help save the orca?

The governor said we should adapt our fish hatchery programs to save the orca but what good would that do if these fish are eaten by an exploding population of pinnipeds and fish-eating birds?

While the plight of the grieving mother orca and the starving female orca are tragic reminders of the irresponsible mismanagement of the ecosystem in general and our natural resources in particular it is important to keep these disturbing developments in perspective.

We share the orca’s position at the top of the food chain.

We live on the same planet.

If the orca go extinct can we be far behind?


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

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

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