Study Shows Importance Of Puget Sound Chinook Production To Starving Orcas

A new analysis is showing the importance of Puget Sound Chinook for the inland sea’s orcas.

Fall kings from the Nooksack to the Deschutes to the Elwha were ranked as the most important current feedstocks for the starving southern residents, followed by Lower Columbia and Strait of Georgia tribs.

A JOINT STATE-FEDERAL ANALYSIS IDENTIFIED THE SNOHOMISH RIVER BASIN AS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PRODUCERS OF CHINOOK FOR LOCAL ORCAS. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

For the analysis, NOAA and WDFW sampled orca doots to “assist in prioritizing actions to increase critical prey for the whales.”

Nutritional stress has been identified as among the chief causes of their declining numbers, and the news comes as officials report a newborn calf died off Victoria yesterday. Just half of the 28 reproductive-age “blackfish” have produced calves in the last 10 years, another report said.

“Ramp up the hatchery production. Do it now. It’s the only way,” says Tom Nelson, co-host of Seattle outdoors radio show The Outdoor Line on 710 ESPN.

He was reacting this morning while fishing for coho at Possession Bar to a Seattle Times scoop on the findings.

Reporter Lynda V. Mapes writes that from the standpoint of federal overseers, “In some instances, it might make more sense to focus on habitat restoration rather than increasing hatchery releases, [NOAA’s Lynn] Barre said. “It has to be evaluated on a watershed level … It’s not just ‘let’s make more fish to feed the whales,’ hold on, there are a few things to consider.’”

A MATRIX FROM THE NOAA-WDFW RANKS THE MOST IMPORTANT CHINOOK STOCKS FOR SOUTHERN RESIDENT KILLER WHALES BY BASIN.

Nelson, who has a degree in fisheries biology, acknowledges that the problems salmon and orcas face are highly complex, with few if any single-faceted answers, but with J, K and L pods down to just 75 animals, action is needed right now, and not just restricting already restricted salmon seasons.

“A significant increase in hatchery releases has to happen. Anything else is a long-term fix. The killer whales don’t have time,” Nelson says.

With nine out of every 10 adult Puget Sound Chinook born at, reared in and released from hatcheries, the state is planning on bolstering prroduction, with the Fish and Wildlife Commission making moves towards that, along with adding  protections for orcas from vessels, another key factor in their struggles. Pollutants also play a role.

Both the salmon stock and marine mammals are listed under the Endangered Species Act, which NOAA is charged with enforcing.

But to achieve a meaningful increase in wild Chinook numbers, you have to have better habitat, Nelson says, and that’s unlikely to occur any time soon in our densely populated region.

“If you think you’re going to get everyone to move out of the Central Sound and get it back to presettlement days, you’re dreaming,” Nelson says.

A lot of habitat work is occurring in estuaries, side channels and elsewhere, but results are painfully slow, and that pace could impact the region’s interest in continuing with the much-needed work.

Meanwhile, 89 percent of this year’s forecast of 255,219 fall kings expected to return to Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and Hood Canal rivers are hatchery fish.

KIRAN WALGAMOTT PEERS INTO AN UNUSED RACEWAY AT THE WALLACE SALMON HATCHERY NEAR GOLD BAR. THE FACILITY REARS SUMMER KINGS. CHINOOK PRODUCTION IN WESTERN WASHINGTON IS HALF OF WHAT IT WAS IN 1989 AS HATCHERY PRACTICES HAVE BEEN REFORMED TO HELP WILD STOCKS RECOVER. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

The importance of Puget Sound Chinook — both wild and adipose-fin-clipped hatchery ones — to SRKWs is otherwise obvious because of where they hang out, off the Washington Coast, in the Straits and in the San Juans, where those salmon stocks return through on the way to their home rivers.

Upper and Middle Columbia and Snake upriver brights, and Fraser, Lower Columbia trib and Fraser springers were also highly important stocks, the analysis found.

But they also fed to a degree on Chinook from as far away as the Sacramento and Southeast Alaska.

“We can use this information as a guide, based on the best science, to help inform decisions about how we spend recovery dollars for both salmon and Southern Resident killer whales,” said Chris Yates, Assistant Regional Administrator for Protected Resources in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region, in a NOAA news story on the analysis. “We remain committed to recovery of all West Coast salmon stocks, and this helps us understand where we can maximize our resources and partnerships to help killer whales too.”

In the words of one close observer of the salmon world, the whales don’t care if kings have an extra fin or not, yet hatchery production has and probably will face more legal challenges.

With harbor seals and sea lions identified as eating large numbers of Puget Sound Chinook before they can mature into orca fodder, Nelson also called for reducing pinniped numbers, which he says could show results in as few as three years in terms of salmon prey availability for killer whales.

A HARBOR SEAL STEALS A SAN JUANS CHINOOK LITERALLY OFF AN ANGLER’S LINE. (HUGH ALLEN)

That and hatchery production would also yield more fish for anglers and help WDFW sell more licenses, easing its budget issues.

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