This past weekend there were two great workshops held on back to back days in Friday Harbor, and a few people who weren't able to attend have asked me to post a summary, so I thought I might as well do that here!
The first workshop, on Friday the 24th, was the annual naturalist gear-down hosted by The Whale Museum. Part of it was a precursor to Saturday's workshop, and I was asked to present some of the whale and salmon data that I've posted on my blog. (You can see all the blog posts in that series here.) After showing some of my graphs, we had a discussion about the links between whales and salmon. A couple of points that were raised: Dawn Noren of NOAA said the orca and salmon departments within the agency do talk to each other, Sharon Grace emphasized that the biggest challenge to salmon recovery is agribusiness being able to buy water rights away from salmon, and Jeanne Hyde pointed out that we need to start taking more real action rather than just talking about acting.
Saturday was a workshop called Southern Resident Killer Whale CALF (Community Action Looking Forward). The idea for the workshop started after the April orca-salmon recovery workshop in Seattle, when it became apparent that the government agencies aren't going to solve the issue of the whales getting enough fish, and that we as citizens need to do something.
The day started off with a joint presentation by Eva Saulitis and Craig Matkin, who study orcas in Prince William Sound, Alaska. They're witnessing the extinction of a distinct population known as the AT1 transients, who haven't born any calves since the Exxon-Valdez oil spill and currently number only 7 whales. It was an emotional presentation, I think made even more so as we realized our Southern Residents are at a tipping point, and that before too long we could be in a position to watch something similar unfold here. This heart-wrenching story is documented beautifully by Eva in her book Into Great Silence. Eva's advice to us: "People are going to have to get radical and incredibly outspoken to give the Southern Residents a chance." Craig added: "The numbers just grind you down, but the heart keeps you going....you have to have the heart and the science to get anything done."
It was also interesting to hear them talk about how different how both salmon management and salmon culture are in Alaska. Salmon management is a fairly simple affair, by their description, with fewer parties involved. And the culture? "Salmon are like gold" - a concept we need to embrace in the rest of the Pacific Northwest, as well.
Ken Balcomb gave a brief talk showing some Southern Resident population numbers, emphasizing in particular that the population increases and decreases have been driven primarily by L-Pod, with Js and Ks holding relatively stable over the years. One interesting point he made: Chinook salmon are the only endangered species that the government gives people the right to kill. This is because our management schemes are driven by economics, and salmon are economically important. What we need to be successful is ecological management, with the ecological importance of salmon emphasized.
The main portion of the afternoon was everyone splitting up into three groups: science, education, and action. The goal was for each group to identify what could be done within their purview to advance salmon recovery for the orcas. I was one of the facilitators for the science group, where we focused mostly on data gaps and where more information is needed. Each group had time to brainstorm ideas, discuss them, and prioritize them, then we came back to share them to the group as a whole.
Cindy Hansen will be writing up the ideas shared with the whole group in detail and sending them via e-mail to everyone who was in attendance. If you want to be on this e-mail list even though you weren't there, please contact here at email@example.com - you will also get announcements about future meetings, etc. I'll just summarize a bit of what was shared here.
Research: One of the major things that needs to happen is to help make existing data more accessible. A lot of the questions people have are about things that have been studied, but much of this information is not easy available. As far as data gaps go, some of the major things we identified were the reason for low survival among juvenile salmon in the Salish Sea (see the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project for more - this issue is beginning to be addressed on a wide scale); the lack of knowledge about winter diet of the Southern Residents; the population status of local forage fish; and an inventory of regional streams where on the ground restoration efforts are needed.
Education: They suggested the idea of linking orca adoption to stream adoption - if you adopt an orca, with it could be information about a stream in your watershed that supports salmon and needs restoration help, further establishing the connections between where we live and the whales. More presence about the issues in the media and on social media could be helpful, with Granny as an iconic "spokeswhale" a la Smokey the Bear relating to the forest fire message. They also mentioned that next summer's Superpod gathering on San Juan Island will focus on salmon so that will be a big opportunity for education.
Action: We need to get orcas/salmon a larger lobbying group politically, perhaps crowd funded. The battle of water rights for salmon needs to be fought - and if necessary the economic value of wild salmon and wild orcas can be further expressed to legislative groups. All like-minded groups should be brought together to speak the same message collectively to have the most effect. Links between orca/salmon health and human health can also be further emphasized.
As you can see, research, education, and action are all very inter-linked. For now, each group has a few volunteer members that will continue over the winter to discuss was the next steps can be based on the ideas generated at the workshop. Then, in the spring (likely April), we will all convene again as a larger group to talk about taking these next steps. It was also stressed that it will be important to bring at least invite other interest groups in at this point, too, such as commercial, sport, and tribal fishermen.
The task is undoubtedly a monumental one - trying to make sure the Southern Residents get enough fish to eat. But we have to do something. It's a bit cliche, but I'm always reminded in moments like these of Margaret Mead's famous quote:
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
We just have to go out and prove it.