Earlier this week, I wrote about Puget Sound orcas, and the problem with small, personal actions like chinook salmon boycotts instead of big, grand ones that take more political will than individual action. In short, I wrote, while it's fine to stop eating chinook salmon if you are worried about orcas and their rapidly dwindling food supply, it won't accomplish much more than making you feel good about yourself. If chinook numbers are ever going to regenerate, it will take major actions like tearing down dams in the Columbia River Basin, not minor ones like eating sockeye* salmon instead.
Despite what you read in the comments, I was (as per usual!!!) right. There was, however, one thing I failed to mention: pollution. And, as is wont to happen when I fail to mention the glaringly obvious, I got an email about it, this time from Amelia Apfel, the communications manager of Puget Soundkeeper, an organization that works to protect the Sound.
According to Apfel, "The dams are super important, and recovering the Snake River Chinook is a big and necessary step to help the whales recover. But recent research has shown they depend just as much on salmon from Puget Sound rivers, even including the Duwamish River. The impact of toxic pollution on the salmon coming from these rivers is a serious problem. The toxic load in the orcas is pretty well covered – people are aware that they have a high burden of contaminants like PCBs. But the pollution is an issue all the way up the food chain. Those toxics impact the salmon’s ability to survive, and same with their prey, the little forage fish and other species that young salmon eat while they’re here in the Sound."
Orcas in this area, as Apfel mentioned, have shown extremely high levels of lead, mercury, and polychlorinated hydrocarbons, in no small part thanks to industrial pollution in the Duwamish, where there are over 40 chemicals above levels recommended for human health. The orcas eat contaminated salmon and then become contaminated themselves. As part of their work, Puget Soundkeeper sues businesses and other entities that are responsible for polluting local waterways and violating the Clean Water Act, but after a century of industrial dumping and run-off, the Duwamish is terribly polluted.
What will it take to clean up the Duwamish? A hell of a lot of work and a hell of a lot less dumping and run-off, for one. Luckily, people are working on it. In 2001, the lower Duwamish river was declared a Superfund site by the EPA, which make cleanup mandatory. Cleanup has been going on since 2003, but the EPA plan involves a lot of covering up toxic waste instead of removing it, which means that any benefits might not be permanent. The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a community group that was formed to advise the EPA, is working to ensure that cleanup is done right. However, they, too, are fighting an uphill battle.
"In November of 2016 the EPA finalized stronger water quality standards for Washington State after years of the Department of Ecology dragging their feet," Apfel wrote me. "After the election a coalition of industry groups promptly petitioned the EPA to reconsider that decision, and just recently the agency responded and said that they will reconsider. We don’t know yet what that looks like, but it could be a major step backwards for controlling pollution like this in our state and protecting people (and orcas) who eat fish."
Want to help the orcas? Sure, forgo the Chinook if you feel like it. But tearing down dams, cleaning up watersheds, and getting an administration and an EPA in place that works for the planet, not industry, will do more for the orcas than changing what's on your plate.
*An earlier version of this post said "king" salmon, which, thanks to an observant Slog commenter, we now know is the same as chinook. The author has been sentenced to clean up the Duwamish.