Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009 | The killer whale, a local icon, is the latest species whose survival is threatened by massive pumps in Northern California that deliver almost a third of San Diego’s water, federal officials have concluded.
A National Marine Fisheries Service analysis has determined that massive pumps that annually send billions of gallons of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the rest of the state are contributing to a decline in salmon populations. Chinook salmon, commonly called king salmon, spawn in the delta and spend much of their adult lives in the Pacific Ocean, where killer whales prey on them.
Salmon stocks plummeted to historic lows last year, prompting an unprecedented closure of commercial salmon fishing from the U.S.-Mexico border to Oregon. Typically, hundreds of thousands of adult salmon return to the Sacramento River to spawn. Last year, just 66,000 adults came back. Salmon runs throughout the West Coast similarly suffered.
The NMFS, the federal agency charged with managing the nation’s fisheries, concluded that the declines are in turn jeopardizing killer whales, which prey on salmon. Though typically associated with Puget Sound, the whales swim as far south as California’s Monterey Bay in search of food. Other clans of killer whales, or orcas, live in the northern Pacific and in seas around the world.
The finding highlights the connected relationships in the West Coast’s marine food web. What happens in the Sacramento Delta affects life throughout the Pacific Ocean. The conclusion also gives environmental groups a dynamic marine mammal to use as a poster child to highlight the deleterious effects of delta pumping. Until recently, the icon that defined the delta’s decline was the endangered delta smelt, a three-inch fish that smells like cucumbers and sits on the verge of extinction.
Now it’s Shamu.