Fifty million more Chinook would be released for southern resident killer whales under a plan being pitched by a member of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission and which would also provide “shirttail benefits” for salmon anglers.
Don McIsaac wants to release 30 million kings in four areas of Puget Sound, and another 20 million from hatcheries in the Columbia River system to help feed the starving pods.
Their plight has gripped the region this summer and this past March led Governor Jay Inslee to sign an executive order directing state agencies such as WDFW to do all they can to help save the species.
The retired longtime director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, McIsaac’s been active on the commission working towards those goals and he detailed his latest proposal on The Outdoor Line on Seattle’s 710 ESPN this past Saturday morning.
“These (smolts) would be released in carefully selected areas where negative impacts to the genetic strains of wild Chinook salmon would be minimized and using genetic strains for hatchery production that have migration patterns that take them to the areas where the killer whales are so they can feed on them,” he said.
“The intent is to make a significant difference, a big difference, in the number of adult Chinook available to killer whales and tag along some significant fishery improvements,” said McIsaac.
Lack of prey is one of the primary factors in why local orcas are doing so poorly.
Fellow commissioners heard McIsaac’s proposal earlier this month and deferred action on it until September, and now he’s looking for support from anglers.
Under his plan, the Puget Sound smolts would be released from “dead end bay areas,” places like Olympia’s Deschutes River (10 million), which has a waterfall near its lower end.
“This is the kind of excellent area where you could enhance the number of Chinook salmon released and not cause problems with wild salmon but gain the benefits of these salmon swimming up through Puget Sound, hanging around Puget Sound, which can be done by manipulating when you release the fish,” McIsaac said.
Others include East Sound between two lobes of Orcas Island (10 million), Agate Pass (5 million) and southern Hood Canal (5 million).
Chinook from the Deschutes and Hood Canal were identified as two of the most important current stocks for orcas, according to a recent analysis.
So too were spring Chinook from Lower Columbia tribs, and McIsaac’s plan would increase production of them and other king stocks.
“There will be some shirttail benefits of all these fish swimming around, and whenever a fishing season is open, then this would benefit fisheries,” McIsaac acknowledged. “So this is intended to be kind of a win-win scenario. They don’t come around that often … but that’s what is intended.”
But his plan primarily aims to test whether increasing prey availability will help reverse orcas’ decline over the decades.
A recent paper suggests that harbor seals and sea lions are now consuming six times as many Puget Sound Chinook as recreational and commercial fisheries — and twice as much as SRKWs.
McIsaac and the commission recently passed a policy statement that advocates a “goal of significantly reducing pinniped predation on salmon” in the Columbia and Puget Sound. On the radio show he cautioned that that shouldn’t be exaggerated into a call for a “huge lethal removal effort,” rather behavior oriented.
As runs have declined due to longterm habitat issues and other factors and state hatchery production has been cut in half from 56 million in 1989 to 28 million in 2016, angling seasons have also been pruned way back, yet there are rumblings more might be coming.
“Closing back fisheries isn’t going to put enough in front of them,” McIsaac told Outdoor Line cohosts Tom Nelson and John Martinis. “And if you just look at closing these fisheries in Puget Sound alone, the number becomes even smaller. People say just close things off of this side of that island or that side of the other island, (but) the numbers are so small they just won’t make a difference.”
Anglers are being rallied to an orca task force meeting tomorrow at the Swinomish Casino over fears that salmon fishing will be scapegoated instead of dealing with the big issues.
It’s not clear how long it would take to collect the necessary number of eggs, how much new infrastructure might be needed and whether McIsaac’s plan would be challenged — some are scorning the idea that hatchery production might be a real bridge.
And for his part, McIsaac openly admitted that increasing Chinook production will take a lot of money and said some should come from the federal government.
“I think it’s time for the Fish and Wildlife Commission to make a strong policy statement, to go big and try to address this situation.. The revenue situation in the state of Washingotn is very positive. We’re not in a recession … There’s a lot of tax money that’s out there for the legislature to think about spending and we hope that they think about the killer whales, they think about the fishing industry. Again, this seems like a win-win proposal and it’s money well spent,” he said.
Host Nelson urged anglers to support his idea by emailing the email@example.com.
And McIsaac asked them to also talk with “friends in the conservation community” to increase awareness of the issue.