Dr. Deborah Giles is a leading researcher on Southern Resident Orcas and has been working professionally on the issue since 2005, but has observed orca and their tragic decline since the late 1980s. She is currently the Science and Research Director at Wild Orca, a nonprofit organization that conducts direct non-intrusive research on Southern Residents as well as focuses on translating scientific research on whales into comprehensible information that anyone can understand. Her research involves examining whale scat for analysis of hormones (nutrition, stress, pregnancy), toxicants, gut microbiome bacteria, microplastics which can tell an extensive story about the animal they’re collecting from.
Dr. Giles warns of the drastic status of Southern Resident Orcas, since they were first listed as endangered in 2005 with 88 whales, their population has dropped now to 73. She points to three primary threats: lack of quality and quantity prey (primarily Chinook), toxicants in their environment that are ingested and metabolized from their fat stores when they no longer have sufficient food, and the presence of vessels and the noise they create. These compounding factors have placed orca in a dire position which we must take action to remedy as the fault lies with us. Orca and salmon have coevolved for hundreds of thousands of years with established cultures and ways of living, the recent expansion by non-Indigenous peoples within the last 100-200 years has “managed to completely decimate Chinook salmon throughout their entire range.” This massive decline in salmon has had horrific effects on the Salish Sea and greater Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Orca are then forced to make a change in a relative “blink of an eye” as far as evolutionary capacity goes, or else they will become extinct unless we act now.
She points to dam removal as one of the fastest ways to recover Chinook salmon as we would be removing a literal barrier in their passageways to spawning grounds. She further emphasizes the success of the Elwha and Nooksack dam removals and the prospective one on the Klamath River. However, a lesser known problem and potential remedy for orca populations is a major shift in fishery management. Dr. Giles highlights the need for significant alterations in fishery policy and practice in order to more comprehensively support salmon repopulation. Currently, fisheries operate regionally so they have a disconnect between the fish they are catching and where those fish are from. Dr. Giles uses the “Alaskan caught” chinook as an example of this. While a majority of cheaper salmon comes from Alaska fisheries, those fish are not born in Alaska, actually 97% of “Alaskan caught” fish are not native to Alaska, enabling fisheries to catch Chinook that are labeled as endangered here without any repercussion. Furthermore, she points to the negligent practice of mixed stock fishing which permits endangered fish populations that are not the target of fishers to be caught and killed. Additionally, there are a number of other measures that fisheries can take to minimize their damaging effects on Chinook populations like altering where, when, and how they fish in order to prioritize fish that are not endangered and minimize bycatch fishing.
Finally, Dr. Giles highlights the necessity of education and action on the issue. Wild Orca provides extensive information on whales and action items with each of their posts, ranging from petitions to calling elected officials. She states that we must let our elected officials know that we care about these whales and that we will be watching to see what happens. Taking effective action to save Chinook population and thus orca would save the Pacific Northwest as we know it. Salmon are the “eco-engineers” of the places that we love, so we should work to remove dams and change fishery management. After all, “the responsibility is ours to reverse this decline of this population.”
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