Island Voices: One virus, two countries, dying whales

This might be the first time in our history that millions of people have watched a population of animals that we know on a first-name basis go extinct.

For 17 days, people around the world ached at the spectacle of a young mother, Tahlequah, carrying her dead newborn for 1,600 kilometres. Then, we watched little Scarlet fall behind, emaciated and then vanish. Now a young male, Scoter, is thin and lagging behind his family.

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This saga of the southern resident orcas continues. Scoter’s sister and two others appear pregnant, and the odds are not in their favour. Recently published research reports that 69 per cent of pregnancies in these families fail, due to starvation, for lack of chinook salmon from the Fraser and Columbia rivers.

Fortunately for these whales, people who have become emotionally committed to helping them understand that increasing chinook-salmon survival is key to keeping the southern resident orcas alive.

Experts suggest that removing dams on the Snake River is one option. This would allow salmon eventually to reach once-productive spawning grounds and, at some point, boost chinook numbers. Also helpfully, Washington state recently legislated the phase-out of Atlantic salmon farms in four years to protect wild salmon.

However, just across the border in British Columbia, there are 120 Atlantic-salmon farms, many sited on Fraser River salmon-migration routes.

Of direct concern to Tahlequah, Scoter and the pregnant mother whales, the B.C. salmon farming industry reports that 80 per cent of B.C. farm salmon are infected with a virus called piscine orthoreovirus. Canadian government scientists recently reported that the same strain of PRV that is in the farmed salmon infects chinook-salmon red blood cells, causing them to rupture en masse, leading to organ failure.

Washington state responded by prohibiting the transfer of 800,000 Atlantic salmon into a farm in Puget Sound that were infected with an Icelandic strain of PRV.

Canada has a very different policy. It allows farmed salmon, infected with what appears to be a Norwegian strain of PRV, to exist in salmon farms on the Fraser River salmon-migration route.

Directly affecting the whales, the 2018 Fraser River chinook salmon return is nothing short of a collapse. The ‘Namgis First Nation of Alert Bay were in court last month to try to stop PRV-infected Atlantic salmon from entering the farms in their territory.

Hundreds of miles north of Puget Sound, chinook salmon tags from Washington state hatcheries have been collected in ‘Namgis territory, where the fish are being exposed to this blood disease.

Turning off exposure to PRV might save enough chinook salmon to feed the orca.

Two countries, one virus, opposite policies — and families of whales caught in the middle. We know them by name and we know they are dying. One virus, opposite policies, only one can be right.

It might be time for the world to talk to Canada on the whales’ behalf.

Kurt Russo, PhD, is with the Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office of the Lummi Nation in Washington state.

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