Pacific Northwest
Land-based whale watchers

Salmon and recovery efforts grow through natural shoreline restoration, land-based whale watching

Gov. Jay Inslee toured three projects in Northern Washington on July 17, to see how state agencies, tribes, local governments and nonprofits are carrying out recent legislation to aid orca and salmon recovery. He visited a restored fish passageway in Arlington called Edgecomb Creek that will bring more fish into waterways. The governor also saw how experts recently restored a Cornet Bay shoreline to its natural habitat and then experienced a land-based whale watching tour through a Whale Trail site.

The projects directly contribute to a healthier, more robust ecosystem for Southern resident orcas, salmon and forage fish.

“Each of these projects tell the story of orca health and the components we need to have a chance at whale recovery,” Inslee said. “We’re looking at how we can provide more fish with more miles of passageways, how we can get back to natural habitats along our beautiful shores, and how we engage and get folks invested in orca and salmon recovery. This is important work that gets to the heart of who we are as members of the same Pacific Northwest family.”

Building natural shorelines

Lisa Kaufman wants to link people back to the water. And doing so means removing barriers — literal and symbolic — around how to encourage healthy shorelines.

Kaufman, Nearshore program manager with the Northwest Straits Foundation, manages large restoration projects along Washington’s marine shoreline. It’s that messy, natural sand and gravel environment that the foundation, and other groups, are working to bring back along coastal Washington.

“It’s a change in the dynamics of how we all think,” she said. “It’s a shift in how we perceive our shorelines and what we need to do with them. A lot of people come here wanting amazing views and they love the water and seeing the orcas and salmon. But there’s a disconnect between them living on the shorelines and having healthy habitats. So we’re working with property owners to see how we can have both.”

Decades of growth, development and economic changes have impacted the natural habitats that link land and water. For example, homeowners have installed lawns where forests once extended to the water’s edge. Those areas no longer experience the critical exchange of nutrients and wildlife. Much of the food for salmon and marine birds, for example, come from healthy vegetation along the shoreline.

Juvenile salmon coming out of rivers need shallow water so they often hug shorelines looking for food such as insects that falls from trees and smaller fish that swim close to shore. When a hardened shoreline — such as a long row of boulders, a bulkhead or concrete wall — replaces a natural shoreline, then forage fish no longer have the habitat they need to spawn.

“We’ve moved the natural habitat and installed a lot of artificial habitats,” Kaufman said. “There’s now less shoreline to go around. We’ve taken away a lot of the shade along the shorelines, too, which means the fish eggs deposited on beaches often don’t survive because the sediment is too hot.”

Artificial habitats haven’t necessarily helped humans either, she said. They often leech toxics and increase erosion. And creating artificial habitats often means people straighten the shoreline by taking out the twists and turns, effectively shortening the shoreline length. That means nooks and crannies disappear, vital places where small fish can swim and hide and where grass can grow and offer nutrients in a shallow ecosystem.

The good news is that public and private groups are removing this artificial shoreline ‘armor’ (such as unnecessary bulkheads or big boulders) and restoring natural shorelines. And legislation that Inslee signed this session implements key recommendations from the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, recommendations that will improve habitat and forage fish population. These efforts will largely support salmon and orca recovery. The new law also gave the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife the authority and tools to help landowners and local government create fish-friendly shorelines.

“So many groups are doing this kind of work, and we need all of us to make it happen,” Kaufman said.

One of the biggest challenges is that almost 70 percent of the Puget Sound shoreline is privately owned. Around the time Washington became a state, the government sold off tidelands — or shoreline — to people who owned waterfront property. During the 1970s, the state stopped selling tidelands but didn’t have the authority to buy any of the shoreline back to help restore it to its natural state.

For now, Kaufman said the foundation works with property owners and gives them information about how to limit their impact on the shoreline. For example, if a homeowner can get rid of large boulders that act as a barrier between their property and the water, the foundation helps them fix it.

Kaufman said she encourages waterfront property owners to think about looking at a healthy beach, rather than focusing on a lawn with a more expansive view.

“We’re looking for incremental change,” Kaufman said. “We’re not going to turn the dial back right away, it’s one step at a time. Through education and providing technical assistance to shoreline property owners — that’s how we hope to change things.”

Investing in orca recovery

During the past 10 years, Donna Sandstrom has poured her dedication to save whales into the nonprofit Whale Trail. As founder and executive director, she wanted to build awareness around Southern Resident orcas and engage people in their recovery, especially after being part of a 2002 effort to reunite an orca named Springer with her family.

“I feel really, really lucky because I feel like I made my way to my life’s calling,” Sandstrom said. “And I don’t know who is calling who. I’ve always had the experience with the orcas that I’m getting pulled as much as I’m pushing.”

The Whale Trail is a network of linked sites across California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The governor visited a Whale Trail site Wednesday in Deception Pass State Park and used binoculars to spot marine mammals.

Visitors can view an online list of whale-watching sites up and down the Pacific coast. Not all the land-based sites have official Whale Trail signs because some of them are wilderness locations so she encourages visitors to read the website beforehand for information. For the sites that do have signs, visitors can read about when and where they can see each animal.

One of the largest benefits of land-based whale watching is that people can enjoy and experience orcas without contributing to vessel noise and disturbance.

“Orcas evoke a deep response just in about everyone who encounters them,” Sandstrom said. “It’s a mixture of awe and joy. People are so deeply thrilled to see them and it changes their experience of the landscape. People look through binoculars and when they lay their eyes on whale, they light up like nothing else. It’s a human experience.”

Sandstrom, a member of the orca task force, said they learned that salmon availability and noise from vessels in the water are linked. Salmon abundance is not the same thing as salmon availability. The number of salmon that whales can find matters more.

“At a certain point, if we don’t make it easier for the whales to find the salmon, then it won’t matter if we have a lot of salmon.”

Orcas lose more than five hours a day to foraging time because of noise from vessels in the water; the noise and traffic disturbance impacts their ability to echolocate and find salmon that may be nearby. Reducing noise provides immediate benefit to the whales by making it easier for them to find food and hear each other.

“The best thing we can do is leave them alone and give them space,” she said.

The orca task force set an initial target of increasing the population to 84 orcas over the next decade. The most recent data from March states there are 75 Southern Resident orcas left. According to the Marine Mammal Commission, the historical population may have numbered more than 200 animals before the 21st century, which is when modern impacts started to impact the orca population.

These efforts and projects align with the task force’s key recommendations, which include:

• Increase the abundance of Chinook salmon.

• Decrease disturbance and other risks posed by vessel traffic and noise.

• Reduce exposure to toxic pollutants — for orcas and their prey.

• Ensure adequate funding, information and accountability measures are in place to support effective recovery efforts moving forward.

Article link.