Habitat destruction in the Puget Sound

Russell Sadler

FRIDAY HARBOR -- It will be tragic if the lesson of Puget Sound’s declining salmon runs and dwindling orca population is allowed to be reframed as “killer whales vs. development.”

The orca whale is to Puget Sound what the salmon is to the Columbia Basin. Both are potent symbols of the reasons many of us live here. A photographer friend even has a name for such regionally significant symbols -- “iconic photogenic megafauna,” because so many people take so many pictures of them.

As recently as 30 years ago, the orcas had a reputation as the “coyote of the sea.” Fishermen shot them with rifles and detonated dynamite near them in an effort to eliminate their competition for fish. Marine aquariums captured orcas alive for public display. This attitude together with the pollution of the Industrial Age has taken its toll.

In the 1800s, there may have been as many as 200 orcas in the southern resident pods that spend summers in Puget Sound. Today there are 89 orcas in three southern resident pods. They have been declared “endangered.” A recovery plan, due in January, is being drafted under the Endangered Species Act, just as recovery plans have been drafted for some Columbia River salmon runs.

This declaration has triggered the predictable rhetoric from the usual suspects. Russell Brooks, managing attorney of the Pacific Legal Foundation, is tripping along with any reporters who will accompany him, warning that his clients -- builders, developers and some farm interests -- fear declaring orcas “endangered” will hamper industrial development, raise the cost of housing, road construction and sewage treatment on land around the sound.

Brooks suggests darkly that listing the killer whale as “endangered” will have economic consequences similar to the listing of the northern spotted owl that supposedly closed mills and cost and estimated 30,000 jobs.

Brooks is engaging in deliberate deception here. In the decade from 1979-89, the Pacific Northwest timber industry lost more than 25 percent of its mills, more than 34 percent of its workforce and more than 20 percent of its wages. The spotted owl injunctions did not come until the early 1990s.

The mill closures and layoffs of the 1980s were the result of automation as the timber industry realized they had logged so much old growth timber, the stumpage no longer existed to maintain historic levels of employment. The timber industry modified or built automated mills that handled smaller logs with fewer workers more efficiently. By 1989, production -- but not employment -- in the region had returned to historic levels.

The lesson of the spotted owl controversy was the end of the old growth that threatened them with extinction also meant the end of human activity that also depended on old growth forests. That powerful message was ignored and the blame game continues.

The consequences of degraded habitat are not limited to orcas and salmon. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that the populations of 42 species of birds are crashing. State wildlife officials say habitat degradation is the problem throughout Puget Sound. Nor is the issue limited to the sound. Two of the three southern resident orca pods spend the winter off the mouth of the Columbia River -- dining on salmon.

The issue is not saving orcas or salmon. The issue is stopping the habitat degradation and restoring the ecosystem that no longer functions adequately to ensure the survival of the iconic species we all recognize. There is no quick fix.

The problem goes beyond industrial pollution. The waters of the sound are an increasing toxic stew. There are 24 Superfund sites in the sound -- relics of the Industrial Age -- that have not been cleaned up. Victoria, British Columbia, spews 34 million gallon of raw sewage daily into the Strait of Juan de Fuca where it sloshes in and out of the sound. There are 17 pulp and paper plants on the sound and the Straits of Georgia discharging pulp liquor with varying degrees of treatment.

There are smaller problems that add up to large ones. Every shopping center parking lot, every roof, every driveway, every farm, funnels contaminated rainwater, fertilizer and pesticide runoff into creeks, streams, and storm drains that empty into rivers that empty into the sound. The flow of pollutants contaminates the sound and degrades the habitat that supports the food that feeds forage fish that feed the salmon that provide food for the orcas.

Human development is killing the stuff at the bottom of the food chain and that is starving the large predators at the top. Let it continue and it will eventually have a negative impact on the humans who also depend on the ecosystem.

The Puget Sound orca recovery plan due in January is a first step in reversing the tide of habitat degradation. It will only succeed if the public demands a new stewardship ethic toward the waters we all share.

  • Don Smith (unverified)


    For once, I agree with you without qualification. These iconic photogenic megafauna need to be saved, developers be damned. Protecting the sound is a great idea. Perhaps a group can raise money to buy conservation easements along affected shorelines. I know hundreds of groups around the country do that...

  • (Show?)

    Perhaps a group can raise money to buy conservation easements along affected shorelines. I know hundreds of groups around the country do that...

    This is already being done in Washington in general and in the San juan Islands in particular for more than it is being done in Oregon. Unfortunately, that still doesn't remedy what does on upstream where development pressure continues to create runoff that pollutes the sound a and contaminates the food chain.

    The same thing happened to the Willamette. Oregonians spent millions,perhaps billions, of dollars to clean up point-source pollutionin Gov. Tom McCall's successful effort to "clean up the Willamette in the 1960s and 70s. During the next 30 years, the population of the Willamette Valley doubles and runoff contamination now has the Willamette as polluted as it was in 1963.

    Don, I realize your post was intended as a snark, but I decided to take it seriously. Buying conservation easements is not a sufficient solution to the problem. Regulation prohibiting private land owners from polluting the public's common wterways is the only effective solution.

  • Howard Garrett (unverified)

    This is a succint statement of the reality of habitat degradation and the radical anti-environmental agenda to frighten people into believing they are threatened by protection and restoration of wildlife. Most builders and farmers would and do support good sense about habitat protections, but their organizations have been taken over by paranoid scare-mongers. I've taken the liberty of posting excerpts of this article at www.orcanetwork.org/news/news.html.

  • Brian (unverified)

    When will we realize that we are part of the web of life?

    Everyday we attempt to play God, deciding which creatures should live and which should die. We pretend we can destroy other species, knocking holes in the web without any effect on us. We wear blinders to keep up the illusion.

    It makes me cry to think about our destructive culture. Humans have lived in harmony with the other species for a million years. Our culture broke this harmony about 10,000 years ago and we seem destined to destroy our life support system if we don't invent a new culture for ourselves and our children.

    The planet doesn't need another developer. We could certainly use a boatload of cultural inventors.

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