Last week I was a fly on the wall for the annual Pacific County Marine Resource Council’s science conference. It’s the best food deal on the Peninsula: three luscious square meals, all free. But, OK, it’s not about the food, it’s about the food for thought, and the day was packed with that too.

The morning agenda started with a “Lightning Round” of topics: Nansen Malin gave a history of the Chinook Hatchery (techniques now used statewide, like fin-clipping for identification, were developed right here); Kim Patten, retired and looking more fit than ever, talked about burrowing shrimp; Matt Lloyd caught us up on Willapa National Wildlife Refuge (WNWR) projects; and Kathleen Sayce reminded us about the great work of the South Pacific County Community Foundation (SPCCF). Here are some highlights.

Lightning roundup

Our Chinook salmon hatchery was launched by locals in 1893, the first in the state! By 1920, there were over 20 hatcheries in Washington modeled after ours; however, in an extremely shortsighted move, all state hatcheries were closed in 1935.

In 1960, with a little financial boost from Weyerhaeuser, another group of dedicated locals renovated and reopened the Chinook hatchery. Now there’s a nonprofit to secure funds and supervise the facility. Currently a new round of rejuvenation projects is taking place — cleaning the tanks, dredging and cleaning raceways, and spiffing up the classroom facilities. (If you’d like to help with the effort, email Kenny Osborne or Nansen Malin at searesourceschinook@gmail.com.)

Kim’s report was to the point: burrowing shrimp continue to be a problem that “the shellfish industry has no way to manage [though different oystering techniques are being tried]. Shrimp liquefy the sediment, then shellfish sink and suffocate.” No mitigation solutions supported by both our oyster growers and state officials are in the works. End of story, at least for now.

Matt (WNWR) gave a quick update on the project at Leadbetter to bring back snowy plover habitat: “500 acres of dunes were dozed along the beach for more than five miles — it’s one of the largest-scale restoration projects on the West Coast.” (Plovers need open sand for nesting.) Matt reported that meadowlarks have been spotted and that plovers are beginning to get a foothold too, though “sometimes nests get wiped out by high tides.”

At Rikkola, off 67th at Sandridge, construction will begin in June for the new center with an anticipated 2020 completion. There is still an active fundraising program to support the construction of the public education building (more on this in coming columns). Matt also noted that there is enhanced boat access and a lot of public hiking and biking trail improvements.

One final note on the post-spartina wars: the number of acres now inundated by this reed has gone from 9,000 to 0.6 — a clear victory for the bay. (More info here: https://www.fws.gov/willapa/recreation/recreation.html.)

On grants given and funds raised by SPCCF, amazing community building is being accomplished. Here’s a link for current donation opportunities that support various non-profit efforts: https://spccf.org/organizations-funds.php.

Ocean and salmon

The second half of the morning was devoted to ocean conditions, salmon, and our critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. It was by far the least upbeat part of the conference as the state of our orcas and the conditions needed for their survival are unlikely to change anytime soon.

The beginning, and perhaps also the end, of the story is the current state of our Pacific Ocean, the orcas’ fishbowl. Brian Beckman from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shared data from long-term ocean monitoring projects that show sea surface temperatures, on average, are rising. The blob is mostly getting bigger — both on and below the surface. (You may remember that the “blob” is a patch of warmer water off our coast that is basically lethal to fish.) As surface temperatures increase, wind and wave action decreases. Since wind mixes cooler water from below the surface bringing up needed nutrients from the ocean depths this means no mix is happening; instead dead zones are created.

Brian regaled us with terminology like anomalies in “Pacific decadal oscillation,” but his overall scientific conclusion for recent years was this — “Things are weird!” Pyrosomes, colloquially called sea pickles, seldom seen before, suddenly bloomed in masses over one ocean test area. Jellyfish populations increased. In general, sea creatures that are not known for their market or food value — either for humans or for orcas — seem to take over when ocean conditions get cockeyed. Ocean temperatures in 2018 were one degree above average. No big deal you say? A one degree increase in a volume as big as the ocean is a huge change.

In both 2008 and 2012, when ocean temperatures were cooler, there were correspondingly bigger salmon returns. Brian’s conclusions: “current conditions appear to reflect a warm phase. There’s been a lot of change recently in ways we don’t understand. We’ll see if things settle down or not. I just don’t know…” It’s not a great prognosis.

Our suffering orcas

Unstable ocean conditions create poor environments for our salmon, which negatively impact our resident orca pods (Chinook salmon are one of their main food sources). Rich Osborne, Olympic Natural Resources Center shared orca data (ONRC website here: http://www.onrc.washington.edu).

These amazing whales are remarkably like us in so many ways. They are, of course, mammals who need to breathe every two and a half minutes. They travel in family groups, led by a grandmother whale who sets the agenda for places to feed and roam. They are widely distributed mammals, like ourselves. They are the top predators in the ocean with a brain-to-body size nearly replicating ours, and they have a larger variety of brain cell-types than humans. They have a sophisticated system of communication, a language with grammar and vocabulary, that allows them to share cultural information across generations. Different regional pods have different “dialects.” They clearly have emotions. (Tahlequah carried her dead baby with her for 17 days. Read more: https://tinyurl.com/y6y6pl8e or https://tinyurl.com/yysz25k7.)

On average, female orcas bear their first calf between 12 to 20 years of age and stop bearing after 40. The gestation period is 17 months. Juvenile orcas spend their first two years with mom, then are taken care of by their family groups until they are nine or ten years old. Males live to be 60; female orcas can live into their 80s.

Their problems are complex and connected: not enough food sources (both the size and number of salmon have decreased dramatically); plastic and pollutants in our ocean; Navy testing of underwater explosives; increase of vessels in our waters; Sea World’s capture of male juveniles from our resident pods in the 1970s (they took 48 individuals away and created generational holes in our orca families); and other obscenities may mean that we will see the decimation of the orcas in our lifetime. Last year no new orcas were born; this year there is one new baby. They have an inbred and compromised gene-pool.

What could save them? There is a governor’s task force working on the problem (and we know how effective those can be: https://tinyurl.com/y25z27tz). Brian (metaphorically) threw up his hands when asked by Kim Patten what might help, “They could learn to eat other things…?”

When will we understand how to balance lucre and love? How many of God’s creatures, equally as miraculous as us, will we need to lose before we change our ways?

•••

Google “Save the Orcas” and you’ll find lots of ways to donate and some individual actions you can take.

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