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Orca Task Force Proposed Mission Statement Blasted For Overlooking Seal Predation

“This is going to be the Kill Sport Fishing Task Force.”

That’s Tom Nelson’s no-holds-barred assessment of an initial work product out of Governor Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.

TOM NELSON SAYS THAT THE GOVERNOR’S ORCA TASK FORCE IS OVERLOOKING A HUGE PROBLEM, SEAL AND SEA LIONS THAT ARE CONSUMING SIX TIMES AS MANY PUGET SOUND CHINOOK AS RECREATIONAL, COMMERCIAL AND TRIBAL FISHING FLEETS ARE. (THEOUTDOORLINE.COM)

Rather than address the fact harbor seals and other marine mammals are eating up starving local orcas’ breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snacks, a proposed mission statement from the group says it will instead seek to enact “temporary emergency measures to offset any shortfall in prey availability.”

Nelson, co-host of the Saturday morning fishing and hunting radio show The Outdoor Line on Seattle’s 710 ESPN, interprets that to mean cutting salmon angling seasons, plain and simple.

“We’ve suffered cut after cut after cut after cut,” he bristles.

The statement also calls for reducing vessel traffic in whale feeding areas by 50 percent by the year 2022.

That probably doesn’t mean ferries, tankers and other shipping traffic, at least in Nelson’s eyes.

“It’s all going to be fishing and whale watching and recreational boats,” he says.

It all boggles Nelson, and this afternoon he ripped the apparent low-hanging-fruit approach on KIRO Radio 97.3’s Dori Monson Show.

He told his fellow radio host that officials were “ducking, dodging and diving from doing the right thing.”

A HARBOR SEAL SWIMS BESIDE A BOAT OFF KINGSTON IN MID-JULY. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

The task force’s “full draft” report for how to recover orcas isn’t due till Oct. 1, but that the mission statement doesn’t mention pinnipeds is highly perplexing.

Nelson points to a 2017 paper that looked at king salmon consumption in Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, San Juan Islands and Hood Canal over the previous 45 years.

“Converting juvenile Chinook salmon into adult equivalents, we found that by 2015, pinnipeds consumed double that of resident killer whales and six times greater than the combined commercial and recreational catches,” the authors’ abstract reads.

Another paper from last year with a wider lens says, “Harbor seals in the Salish Sea (i.e. Puget Sound, Strait of Georgia, and Strait of San Juan de Fuca) accounted for 86.4% of the total coast wide (Chinook) smolt consumption in 2015, due to large increases in the harbor seal abundance in this region between 1975 and 2015 (8,600 to 77,800), as well as a large diet fraction of Chinook salmon smolts relative to other regions.”

FIGURES IN “COMPETING TRADEOFFS BETWEEN INCREASING MARINE MAMMAL PREDATION AND FISHERIES HARVEST OF CHINOOK SALMON,” PUBLISHED IN SCIENTIFIC REPORTS LAST FALL, ILLUSTRATES THE INCREASING CONSUMPTION OF INDIVIDUAL CHINOOK AND CHINOOK BIOMASS BY HARBOR SEALS (BLUE) AND OTHER MARINE MAMMALS. (CHASCO ET AL)

Coastwide, the all-fleet king catch has decreased from 3.6 million to 2.1 million.

As for the paper that the governor’s group appears to be leaning on, it doesn’t mention harbor seals or sea lions once.

It does say that “a 50% noise reduction plus a 15% increase in Chinook would allow the (SRKW) population to reach the 2.3% growth target.”

That 15 percent figure can also be found in the task force’s proposed mission statement: “By 2028: In the near term, our goal is to maintain reductions in vessel disturbance and underwater noise and increase Chinook prey abundance by 15% by 2028.”

Hatchery production increases are being considered and recently state and federal biologists identified the most important Chinook rivers for SRKWs.

Noise, pollutants and prey availability are believed to be the three key factors in why J, K and L pods are struggling, but the task force paper also states, “The whales’ depleted status is due in large part to the legacy of an unsustainable live-capture fishery for display in aquariums.”

It was popular to go to SeaWorld and see orcas eat fish out of trainers’ hands.

Ironically, Nelson was threatened with a $500 fine this week for flipping a finger-sized chunk of a salmon carcass to a harbor seal hanging out in the Everett marina, where he moors his boat.

He was on camera with KING 5 for a story illustrating the abundance of harbor seals in Puget Sound.

As soon as he tossed out that piece of fish to one of the “water puppies” that more and more appear to beg for scraps from fishermen and others, he and the camera crew’s phones started ringing and he eventually found himself on the line with a federal enforcement officer.

It all may go down as a warning, but it’s illegal to feed the Marine Mammal Protection Act species.

The day before a harbor seal ate a wild Chinook right off the end of Nelson’s line as he tried to release it.

HUGH ALLEN SNAPPED THIS HARBOR SEAL STEALING A SAN JUANS SALMON LITERALLY OFF AN ANGLER’S LINE. (HUGH ALLEN)

So how would Nelson deal with the overpopulation of harbor seals that are eating Puget Sound Chinook, many of which would otherwise grow into adults and upon their return to the Salish Sea provide nourishment for the orcas?

“If we could cut their numbers in half, it could do something. We could stop this by trapping and releasing them in the ocean,” he proposes.

There, they’d be subject to being preyed on transient killer whales, the pinniped-eating kind.

“We’re going to have to act,” he says. “It ain’t gonna be nice, it ain’t gonna be pretty.”

This week, lawmakers in Washington DC voted to expand state and tribal managers’ authority to remove sea lions from more of the Lower Columbia and its tribs to reduce their predation on ESA-listed salmon and steelhead stocks.

Hold that thought, Senators.