A couple of Septembers ago my daughter and I sat on a fallen tree that made a bridge across a local salmon stream. We settled there, legs dangling above the gently flowing water and watched mesmerized as an ancient ritual played out beneath our feet. Beautiful but travel-weary salmon wriggled their way upstream, drawn by instinct back to their birthplace to start the cycle of life again. We sat in silence, for this act of nature has always felt sacred to us. Part of me wanted to be there, quietly cheering them on, while another part of me felt emotionally overwhelmed by this final act of courage and strength, and wanted to slip away.

Photo: bpperry/Getty Images

I have immense respect for fish and firsthand experience has made me aware of how incredibly smart and personable they are! Case in point, Leonard, our 18-year old goldfish who has grown to a little over a foot in size. Leonard has had several wonderful tankmates over the years, but he has been with us the longest. He knows his name, comes when called, and demands to be fed by hand (foraging is so last year!) Leonard also enjoys gentle massages and fairy lights hung outside his tank. He is sweet, loving and affectionate, and is as interactive as our furry family members! People are accustomed to thinking of fish as emotionless or unintelligent, but Leonard proves those theories wrong. He is one of the reasons we are vegan and we consider ourselves lucky to call him family!

The life cycle of salmon has fascinated me since I was a kid. The power of instinct is still unfathomable to me, a sort of magic. It impressed upon me from an early age the wonder of nature, the incredibly intricate dance that allows this extraordinary cycle to perpetuate. Mostly, it gave me a huge respect for the fish themselves. Young salmon face many natural threats, such as predators, both in the river or stream and in their life at sea. Humans further complicate their existence by building dams, destroying habitat, polluting carelessly and overfishing. It’s a small miracle then, when these hardy fish complete the journey full circle.

Snoqualmie River Photo: Barefoot Eco Outfitters

I raised my kids in a rural village a couple of blocks up from a beach on the Puget Sound. It was easy to make the observation that “everything runs downhill.” We took seriously the fact that decisions we made, like washing our car, could have an impact on the health of the water below. It taught us to live in tandem with nature and inspired a sense of stewardship since we wanted to protect what was literally in our own backyard.

Still, for many people, especially those who don’t live near water and see firsthand the impact of human carelessness, the Puget Sound and Salish Sea seem fine. Spring and summer are beautiful in western Washington, and the sun sparkles off the brilliant blue waters that define the landscape here. But there are problems lurking beneath those glittering waves, and when the local news started carrying more stories about our endangered iconic resident killer whales, the dire truth became more widely known.

Lime Kiln Lighthouse, San Juan Island & Salish Sea. Photo: Barefoot Eco Outfitters

Orcas have been an integral part of the Pacific Northwest and are interwoven in a most sacred way into the culture of the first peoples who originally called this place home. There are three types of killer whales in our waters – transients or Biggs killer whales, Offshore killer whales and the Southern Resident orcas. While they might look similar to the untrained eye, their differences impact their survivability in these waters.

Transients are true to their name, and come and go from the waters of the Puget Sound and Salish Sea. They feed on mammals such as seals and sea lions. Offshore orcas are smaller in size and feed on a variety of fish and favor sleeper sharks. The Southern Resident Killer Whales tend to stay in our waters year round and feast primarily on Chinook (or king) salmon. In other words, their ability to survive and thrive depends directly on healthy Chinook salmon populations. Currently, both our salmon and Southern Resident orcas are in jeopardy. Salmon suffer from the human threats mentioned above, and the orcas are challenged by the resulting lack of salmon, as well as both water pollution and noise pollution from boats and navy testing. This is a problem with complicated solutions, and there are several groups working tirelessly on behalf of the salmon and orcas to try to save them before it’s too late.

Photo: ML Haring/Getty Images

But being paralyzed with hopelessness is not our style. Saying a problem is too big will never allow us to get to the other side (and I always believe in keeping hope alive). So what can the average citizen do to help salmon and protect the killer whales? Here are a few suggestions!

  1. Storm drains go right into our rivers, lakes and streams. Take care not to use toxic chemicals near them, and do not dump any chemicals down them. Try to wash your car on the lawn to minimize the chance of the runoff reaching a storm drain, and use earth-friendly soaps & cleaners
  2. Stay on trails when hiking or biking to avoid disturbing fragile river or stream banks. The health of a river depends as much on the habitat that surrounds it as what’s in it.
  3. Switch to earth-friendly household cleaning products and laundry soaps as everything you flush or put down the sink makes its way to our rivers and streams
  4. Turn off lights and appliances when not using them. Dams use water to generate electricity, so less is more!
  5. Limit your shower time and don’t leave water running when brushing your teeth
  6. In your yard, choose native plants which will be more hardy and require less water
  7. Consider eating less salmon. We don’t need salmon to survive, but the Southern Resident orcas do!
  8. Consider supporting groups that work to protect our salmon and orcas. A few suggestions: Orca Network https://www.orcanetwork.org/Main/index.php?categories_file=Links, and Center for Whale Research https://www.whaleresearch.com/
  9. Volunteer with community groups to help restore riparian zones (lands that occur along bodies of water). Healthy streambanks make for healthy salmon habitat!
  10. Volunteer for a beach cleanup, or pick up trash on your own – you don’t need permission to keep our waters clean!
Skyler Strandness, Barefoot Eco Outfitters Beach Cleanup

The constructs of nature are beautifully intricate, and you can’t eliminate one species or habitat without affecting the others. We are part and parcel of the natural world, and our survival depends on a healthy and thriving planet. What a beautiful thing then, to remember this connection, and to do our part to make sure that all species continue to flourish. We’ll continue to do our best to keep our waterways clean, and follow the suggestions listed here. It’s the very least we can do to continue to enjoy the company of the mighty orcas, and the courageous salmon who honor nature’s mysterious rhythms from deep within their soul.

With respect for the wild ones,

Tracy Strandness, Owner/Founder

Tracy Strandness, Barefoot Eco Outfitters