Water Matters: Charismatic megafauna

Charismatic megafauna: It’s a mouthful. It’s a good start on a haiku.

Google reports that it means, “Large animals with symbolic value and widespread popular appeal — and often used by environmental activists to achieve environmental goals.”

Hmm. What’s a large mammal symbolic of Puget Sound and so entertaining that people spend millions of dollars each year just for the chance to see one?

Our Puget Sound orca? Bingo.

As for the third part of that definition, I must have been raised funny because environmental goals and people goals are inseparable to me. Perhaps spending one’s formative years on the scenic shores of North Lake Tahoe does that.

The state marine mammal

Living here for my continuing-formative years and learning about orcas (and seeing them from a ferry now and then), I find many things I can relate to besides both being at the top of the food chain.

There is last summer’s headlining story of the orca mom who swam with her deceased newborn for more than two weeks — unwilling to let go, to let her sink into the deep.

There’s the orca life cycle: females are sexually mature at about age 10, peak fertility is at about age 20, they give birth about once every five years, nurse for one to two years, and undergo menopause at about 40 but live for decades after.

The oldest member of the year-round residents in the San Juan Islands (i.e., the “Southern Resident” pods) is 91. I dare to hope I make it that long, but maybe I should move to the San Juans …

On the other hand, not so familiar is an 18-month gestation and only a 50-50 chance that a calf will survive past a few months.

Plus, they’re way bigger, can swim 100 miles a day and are most closely related to dolphins rather than whales (or people).

Historically, the number of resident orcas living in the waters around the San Juans was 200, before their charisma became the main attraction at aquariums all over the world.

In 2005, our resident pods were declared endangered, but by then the population was more than halved. As of this past winter, their number grew by one to 75, but life is tenuous and the new L pod calf named Lucky needs some of that good luck before it’s out of the woods.

Our orcas are declining on our watch. How would it effect the ecosystem to lose the top of the food chain during our lifetime? How will it feel to us?

Bringing it straight from the environment to people — what if tours to see our favorite charismatic megafauna in Puget Sound don’t have anything to look for anymore?

Extinction not unlikely

Given the urgency in stopping whatever is killing the killer whales, Gov. Jay Inslee established a task force one year ago, assigning 50 stakeholders a six-month time frame to assess what is known on that question and to draft solutions including a path forward for each. The following is a very brief synopsis of their findings.

1. Restore the orcas’ primary food source (Chinook salmon): Improve salmon populations across the region, including the Columbia River system, with hatcheries and habitat improvement, and manage the competition for that food (e.g., sea lions). Sport and commercial fisheries made it clear this is their favorite option.

Brief mention is given the old plan to breach the Lower Snake River dams as recommended in a 2002 Environmental Impact Statement related to saving that population of wild Chinook; many believe it’s still a feasible option that will improve the odds for orcas.

2. Restore water quality: Get rid of toxins by cleaning up stormwater and industrial discharges. What’s not to like about that? When orcas are starving and metabolize their blubber, the toxins concentrate in their blood, poisoning them.

(Quick aside: While we’re not off the hook, Sequim is rare in that the majority of our stormwater readily soaks into the ground; most other urban areas drain straight to Puget Sound.)

3. Reduce stress: The nuisance and noise of whale watchers, ships and sonar are known to affect orcas’ habitat and health. In an ironic twist, we could be loving them to death.

My husband’s second cousin came to visit after graduating eighth grade in Illinois just to see orcas in person. I am sure the tourism industry is very concerned about proposed restrictions, but if the whales disappear, they’ll have a worse problem.

Shared sacrifice

This month our nation will celebrate its 49th Earth Day. Remember “Save the whales?”

Everyone agrees that time is of the essence, so which solutions are the lowest hanging fruit? Gov. Inslee’s proposed budget contains more than $1 billion in projects within two years. As of the time of this writing, it’s not clear what the House and Senate have countered, but I assume it isn’t as much.

On the other hand, many bills were proposed when the Legislature convened and several have survived the committee process. Now, it’s a battle of the stakeholders. Everyone has an opinion which approach should take priority.

No one wants to sacrifice, but achieving a goal shared by society at large as well as “Save the Whale” enthusiasts can’t be done without it.

Save the orcas. At the top of the food web, they symbolize a healthy ecosystem. Unfortunately, the megafauna are telling us very clearly: it’s not healthy out there.

Between bills and budgets, the big projects are in the Legislature’s hands. The rest of us can avoid using chemicals indoors or outside (including phosphates and synthetic fragrances), fix oil leaks, don’t pester the orcas when boating, give leftover medicines to a pharmacy, buy organic, buy local, or grow your own!

Geek moment

Cumulative precipitation was looking well above average in the mountains until it stopped for the month of March (the lowest on record). March is usually a key month for snow accumulation, but instead the melting season got a strong start in the past two weeks — shown by the 500+ cfs flows in the Dungeness River unrelated to rain events.

Cumulative precipitation in the upper watershed is at 90 percent, snow water equivalent sits at 104 percent*, and streamflow in the river is normal now — but listen for drought warnings within the coming month.

*The Dungeness Snotel is known to inflate this measure due to lower elevation and shorter record relative to the other Olympic Range Snotel stations.

For the 2019 Water Year (started Oct. 1):

• Rain in Sequim through March 31 at the Sequim 2E weather station (sea level): Total rainfall = 10.8 inches; Highest and lowest temps haven’t changed = 65 and 15 deg. F in October and February, respectively.

• Snow in the upper Dungeness watershed through March 31 at midnight, reported for the SNOTEL station (elev. 4,010 feet): Snow depth = 9 inches; Snow water equivalent = 5.6 inches. Number of days below freezing = 22.

• River flow at the USGS gauge on the Dungeness (Mile 11.2): Max flow = 1,870 cubic feet per second (cfs) on Nov. 27; Min. flow = 77 cfs on Oct. 25. Currently = 226 cfs. Range for the past month = 150-500 cfs.

• Flow at Bell Creek entering Carrie Blake Park: trickle; Bell Creek at Washington Harbor = flow generally between 2-5 cfs in winter-spring, unless it’s storming.

Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now resource manager for City of Sequim. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent policies of her employer. Reach Soule at columnists@sequimgazette.com or via her blog at watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.