No salmon, no whales

Published on Wed, Dec 4, 2013 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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An independent filmmaker living in Birch Bay is doing his part to save the orcas by drawing attention to the decline of the southern resident killer whales in a documentary film called “Fragile Waters.”

Filmmaker Rick Wood said that until he took his first whale watching tour in 2006, he had no idea that there were different types of orcas (or killer whales)swimming around the Salish Sea. “My wife and I lived in Washington for eight years,” he said. “We knew there were orcas around – anyone who has lived here any length of time knows that – but I didn’t know there was a difference between the residents and the transients. I just thought of them as one blanket species.”

But the transients and residents are distinctly different, he found, and each group speaks its own language, has its own 
territory and subsists on a unique diet. Southern resident orcas, the smallest of four resident orca communities in the Pacific Northwest, are the only killer whale population currently on the endangered species list. They typically roam the waters from the southern tip of Vancouver Island to the mouth of the Columbia River, and are often seen off San Juan Island at Lime Kiln State Park. While transients hunt for marine mammals, residents follow the salmon runs, which are in decline.  

“There’s an old saying that says where there are no fish, there are no blackfish,” filmmaker Rick Wood said. “Eighty-five percent of the southern resident’s diet is Chinook salmon, and as the runs decline, it means there are also less Orcas around. We may think that they’re doing great because we see all these whale watching tours all the time, but the reality is that we’re seeing a decline in the population. Things are dire.”

At last count, according to Wood, the southern residents numbered 82. “That’s a 10 percent decline in the past 10 years. It’s a real problem,” he said. “People don’t realize the population has been so decimated.”

He hopes his film will bring attention to the plight of the orcas and what can be done to help protect them, starting with the restoration of the salmon runs. 

“The salmon are critical to the survival of coastal ecosystems,” said Dr. Anna Hall, science advisor for Pacific Whale Watch Association. “They are fundamental to the health and survival of resident killer whales – from what we know of their diet, salmon are the number one important component. It seems clear that without the salmon, we stand to lose the whales. Salmon runs were down this past summer, and there were significant changes in the whales’ distribution… The importance of working to successfully restore salmon populations cannot be understated. It is time for action – effective killer whale conservation means effective salmon conservation. No salmon, no whales. The math is simple and clear. What are we waiting for?” 

Pointing out environmental problems such as dams, water pollution and the accumulation of biotoxins through the food chain, Wood said there are a lot of reasons that both the Chinook and orca numbers are down. “Everything is connected,” he said. “But no one has really tackled all of these issues before.”

Wood said that his film is focusing on finding help for the waning whale population rather than on placing blame.

“There are no bad guys,” Wood said. “But rather a lot of bad decisions that have been made. This is not a film about the people who caused the problem, but rather about the people who are fixing it – it’s about the heroes.”

With more than 20 subjects on the interview list, he and assistant director Shari Macy are looking far and wide to find answers. “This is the only moment we get,” Wood said. “Now is the time to make the choice of what we save and what we don’t.”

Wood and Macy anticipate their film will be completed in late 2014, after a winter of interviewing and gathering footage. 

To learn more about the film, which is in preproduction and sponsored by the nonprofit Orca Network, visit Facebook.com/fragilewaters

To donate to the production costs for the documentary, which will be used for educational purposes and broadcast television, visit causes.com and search for “Fragile Waters.”