Tag Archives: SOUTHERN RESIDENT KILLER WHALES

Sport Fishing Reaction To Final Orca Recommendations Sent To Gov

Washington’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force has transmitted its recommendations for how to help out the state’s struggling orcas to Governor Inslee, and members of the sportfishing community are reacting to the final package.

WASHINGTON GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE SPEAKS BEFORE SIGNING AN EXECUTIVE ORDER ON ORCAS AND CHINOOK EARLIER THIS YEAR. THE ORDER CREATED THE SOUTHERN RESIDENT KILLER WHALE TASK FORCE THAT TODAY DELIVERED ITS FINAL RECOMMENDATIONS. (TVW)

An executive summary says the 148-page report provides an outline for meeting four key goals:

  • Increasing the abundance of Chinook, the key forage for the starving whales;
  • Decreasing disturbance from vessels with the affect of boosting their access to salmon;
  • Reducing contaminants in the environment;
  • And measures of accountability.

A PUGET SOUND ADULT CHINOOK SALMON SWIMS THROUGH THE BALLARD LOCKS. (NMFS)

It aims to increase the population of J, K and L Pods by 10 in 10 years, reversing the decrease seen since 1996. There are now only 74 orcas after this year saw the high-profile deaths of a just-born calf and a young animal as well as a third.

“I will review these recommendations over the coming weeks, and my staff and I will assess each one for the most impact in the short and long-term. I will roll out my budget and policy priorities in mid-December for consideration during the 2019 Legislative Session,” Gov. Inslee tweeted.

Ron Garner of Puget Sound Anglers, George Harris of the Northwest Marine Trade Association and Butch Smith of the Ilwaco Charters were among the dozens of task force members who signed on as supporting the entire package, while a whale watching world representative was the only no vote. Six others abstained.

Front and center, Goal 1 is to boost the numbers of Chinook that orcas depend on most.

That would be done through a mix of habitat restoration and acquisition projects, enforcing current laws that protect fish habitat, incentivizing private work that benefits salmon, and “significantly” boosting hatchery production.

With Puget Sound kings listed under the Endangered Species Act, that will have to be done carefully, but already the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is talking about how and where it might be possible to ramp things up for SRKWs.

“We did get the recommendation from the WDFW commission of 50 million Chinook into the recommendation to the Governor,” said PSA’s Garner.

It would take money and time were that to be implemented, but could potentially come online far faster than other parts of the goal.

A story out this week spotlighted the highly important but excruciatingly slow pace of salmon habitat work — 90 years to recover what plans call for for full estuary restoration.

“Production needs to be ramped up immediately, and follow the recovery/ESA sidebars in the recommendations,”
said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, who is a member of the task force’s Prey Working Group.

However, she expressed concern about “organizations who will file lawsuits to fight increased production no matter how thoughtfully done and no matter how dire the need.”

Admittedly, anglers would also see “shirt tail” benefits of more Chinook, to hazard a guess primarily in South and Deep South Sound and terminal zones, which are well past whale feeding zones.

There had been calls to “completely stop salmon fishing” to make more prey available for orcas, but ultimately that wasn’t the direction of the task force.

“We were successful in getting the target off of our backs blaming fishing,” said Garner. “At one point we brought out the 87-page NOAA study that said if we stopped all fishing on the West Coast — California to Alaska — salmon would not recover.”

A GRAPH FROM THE TASK FORCE’S RECOMMENDATIONS SHOWS THE DECLINE IN CHINOOK AND COHO HARVEST IN WASHINGTON SALT- AND FRESHWATERS BY RECREATIONAL, TRIBAL AND COMMERCIAL FISHERMEN. (SRKWTF)

He said that he and others were able to convince the task force that reductions in salmon production due to ESA listings, Hatchery Scientific Review Group recommendations and the funding cuts that have particularly affected state facilities “put the entire system into shock.”

“The orcas, coastal communities, tribal communities, tackle retailers, fishing shops, boat shops, and everything that relies on salmon crashed. Our habitat is in terrible shape and we’re losing it faster than it’s being rebuilt,” he said.

Even if the larger target is off of the backs of fishermen as a whole, Hamilton remains vigilant about some possible closures she’s heard of that would only apply to sportfishing and wouldn’t help feed orcas.

As for those “cute little water puppies” stealing dinner from SRKWs, the plan includes a recommendation titled “Predation of Chinook: Decrease the number of adult and juvenile Chinook lost to predation by species other than Southern Residents.”

That begins with figuring out the impact of harbor seals and sea lions, which leaves a lot to be desired, but the task force does urge the legislature to fund that work by WDFW and the tribes.

It also requests that state fishery managers drop limits on popular walleye, bass, catfish and other nonnative species that are known to chow on Chinook smolts.

It doesn’t go as far as reader Larry Moller wants — herring hatcheries — but it does call for more work to be done to assess all the forage fish species so important to Chinook.

A PAIR OF SOUTHERN RESIDENT KILLER WHALES SWIM IN INLAND WATERS EARLIER THIS MONTH. (KATY FOSTER/NOAA FISHERIES)

As far as vessel disturbance, instead of no-go zones it calls for lawmakers to create go-slow bubbles around J, K and L Pods.

Garner termed warding off area closures a win, but also acknowledged that others in the boating world will be hurt by another recommendation:

An all-fleet, three- to five-year moratorium on watching the three groups of orcas.

“WDFW said they could have a boat around them to ward off everyone while they are in our waters,” said Garner. “I think this hurt the whale watchers. They said the locals SRKWs are only here 20 percent of the time. There was never any intent to do damage to the whale watching industry.”

It’s important to note that the moratorium would NOT affect watching transient orcas, grays or humpbacks.

The plan’s recommendations also call for creating a new $10 orca endorsement for boaters, but it takes more of a strong nudge approach in terms of asking anglers and others to turn off their fish- and depthfinders when orcas are within about a half-mile’s distance.

And as for one of the most controversial elements, Snake River dams, it recommends a stakeholder process to talk about their removal with help from a third-party neutral.

Speaking of dams, NSIA’s Hamilton continues to call for more spill down the mainstem Columbia, saying that upping it over current levels to help smolts downriver is modeled to yield real results in returning adult spring Chinook.

“Columbia River springers are a critical food source to orcas during winter when there is little else to nourish pregnant and migrating orcas. Tags show they do circles off the mouth of the Columbia River during March,” she says.

A N.M.F.S STORY MAP SHOWS AN ORCA KNOWN AS K25 ALL BUT SWIMMING LAPS AROUND THE C.R. BUOY AS THE 2013 RUN OF SPRING CHINOOK ENTERED THE COLUMBIA RIVER. PRIOR TO THE ARRIVAL OF THE SALMON THAT YEAR, THE WHALE PATROLLED UP AND DOWN THE WEST COAST. (NMFS)

But she worries that the state is moving “too slow” on that key action and might even go “backward” next year.

“The first items were of immediate actions. If we are to have salmon and orca in our future, the long-term actions are critical,” says Hamilton. “We must enforce existing laws, we must protect and restore salmon habitats, and the science also says we should look at the effects of dams, especially the four lower Snake River dams.”

Even as the task force handled that issue with kid gloves, it urged the legislature to fund the dismantling of two other dams, one on the Pilchuck that has been attracting a lot of coverage of late, and another in the Nooksack watershed.

Besides Garner, Harris and Smith, the list of other task force members in the fishing world who consented to the final package include:

Amy Windrope of WDFW; BJ Kiefer of the Spokane Tribe; Brad Smith of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission; commercial fisherman Brendan Flynn; Chad Bowechop of the Makah Tribe; Jacques White of Long Live the Kings; Lynne Barre of the National Marine Fisheries Service; Paul McCollum of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe; Rep. Brian Blake of the state House of Representatives; and Terry Williams of the Tulalip Tribes.

Those who abstained included representatives from the Washington Farm Bureau, Washington Forest Protection Association and Association of Washington Businesses, and the Lummi, Squaxin Island and Skokomish Tribes.

The report also includes next steps, identifies which agency is tasked with dealing with what recommendations, minority reports from task force members about ideas they don’t support, and a rundown on public comments.

Now it is up to the governor and the legislature to put some teeth in the recommendations.

Fall King Production In Green-Duwamish Could Be Increased By 2 Million

With the plight of starving orcas front and center in the region, federal fishery overseers will consider a proposal to raise an additional 2 million fall Chinook smolts in the Green-Duwamish.

FEDERAL OVERSEERS WILL CONSIDER A PLAN TO BOOST PRODUCTION OF DUWAMISH-GREEN FALL CHINOOK BY 2 MILLION. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

The National Marine Fisheries Service put out a notice late last week that it will prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement for whether to boost releases in the King County river system above the level originally proposed by state and tribal managers.

“The alternative to be analyzed in the DSEIS is informed by the applicant’s interest in increasing hatchery production of juvenile Chinook salmon, and NMFS’ analysis of the status of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales and the importance of Chinook salmon prey to their food base,” a notice published in the Federal Register reads.

Green-Duwamish Chinook were identified as among the most important current feedstocks for orcas, and they also provide sport and tribal fisheries.

The original EIS for the system called for release of as many as 5.1 million fall kings, mostly by WDFW and with 600,000 of those part of a new Muckleshoot “Fish Restoration Facility ” to be built below Howard Hansen Dam on the upper Green.

The supplementary Chinook would be reared at WDFW’s Soos Creek Hatchery for release at Palmer Ponds.

Forgo Eating Chinook? There Are Much Better Ways To Help Orcas — NWIFC

Last month, when a Seattle public radio station tweeted out a link to a segment entitled “Should I eat Chinook salmon,” @NWTreatyTribes clapped back, “Yes, you should eat chinook salmon.”

Inserting myself into the conversation, I said, “Finally! Something we agree on!! ?.”

CHINOOK ON THE GRILL. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

It was meant to be a light joke, as tribal and recreational anglers have certainly been at odds over salmon in the past, but these days the fate of our fisheries are linked more closely than ever and there’s increasing recognition on our part that habitat really is key, as the tribes continually note.

So while not eating Chinook might make Emerald City residents feel like they’re doing something noble for struggling orcas, it only makes recovering the key feedstock even more difficult.

That’s the gist of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission chair Lorraine Loomis’s column this month.

In part it’s a response to a Seattle chef’s decision to pull the salmon species off the menu of her restaurants amidst the orca crisis.

“If restricting harvest were the solution to salmon recovery and orca survival, we would have accomplished both long ago,” Loomis writes.

Instead, she says if diners and others want to help, they should get in touch with their lawmakers to ask for increased hatchery production in select watersheds; more habitat restoration; quicker culvert work; and dealing with Puget Sound pinnipeds, which are literally stealing food from the southern residents, among other fixes.

Loomis acknowledges they’re all heavy lifts — many are also part of the governor’s SRKW task force’s potential recommendations out for public comment now — but they need to be implemented to help out the fish and thus the orcas.

Yes, it would benefit fishermen, but find me another part of the population that cares like we do.

“Indian and non-Indian fishermen are the greatest advocates for salmon recovery and the most accountable for their conservation. Contributing to the economic extinction of fishing will only accelerate the salmon’s decline,” Loomis writes, adding, “We need everyone in this fight. If you love salmon, eat it.”

With 4 Orcas In Sensitive Condition, NOAA Asking Boaters To Give ‘Extra’ Space

With another killer whale losing weight but at least three others recently discovered to be pregnant, federal officials are asking boaters to give the pods an even wider berth.

NOAA reports that a late-20s male appears thinner since losing its mother last year, which could be making foraging more difficult.

IMAGES FROM NOAA SHOW A “NOTICEABLY THINNER” ORCA KNOWN AS J25. (NOAA)

“While the decline in K25’s body condition is not as severe as we saw with J50 this summer, it is a warning signal,” said Lynn Barre, the recovery coordinator for resident orcas.

J50 was a three-year-old southern resident that is now believed to have died.

The agency says it will track the animal’s condition, collect poop samples if it can and otherwise try to minimize disturbing it.

The average life span of a bull orca is 30 years.

Meanwhile, NOAA says that at least one female in J, K and L Pods is pregnant, “vital news.”

(NOAA)

“We ask that vessels minimize disturbance of these pregnant whales, in addition to K25, to maximize the chances of successful pregnancies,” said Scott Rumsey, the deputy West Coast region administrator.

The news comes as salmon fishing is just about wrapped up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and San Juans, where this coming Sunday, Sept. 30, is the final day of coho season.  That’s also when crabbing closes in the islands.

And it follows yesterday’s release for public comment of potential recommendations on what to do to increase prey availability, operate vessels and clean up contaminants that could be affecting killer whale survival in Puget Sound.

Federal regs require boaters to stay 200 yards from whales, and earlier this year WDFW created a voluntary no-go zone on the west side of San Juan Island, and

Chance To Comment On Orca Recommendations

You have two weeks to submit comments on potential proposals that Washington’s southern resident killer whale task force‘s three working groups rolled out yesterday.

The task force as a whole will review the public’s submissions in mid-October and send a final report with its agreed-to recommendations to Governor Jay Inslee in mid-November.

AN ORCA BREACHES IN THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS. (BLM)

Some of the ideas that will catch the eyes of fishermen include:

  • Boost hatchery Chinook production: There are three proposals, with 1A calling for increased releases, 1B for pilot projects and 1C, a combination of both along with habitat improvements. Upping production would require funding for more infrastructure and to complete scientific reviews;
  • Fund habitat purchases and restoration projects benefiting key Chinook stocks;
  • Develop a system to be able to close sport and commercial fisheries when orcas are in key feeding zones. This could go into effect by next spring and would appear to be dependent on setting up more hydrophones to better track SRKW movements, which is another potential recommendation;
  • Ask fishermen and boaters to switch their fish- and depthfinders from 50 kHz to 200 kHz within half a mile of orcas;
  • Buyout nontreaty commercial licenses and work with the tribes to consider the feasibility of doing so with treaty fishermen or switching to gear with lower impacts on Chinook;
  • Establish a half-mile-wide, 7-knots-or-less go-slow zone around orcas;
  • Create new no-go zones on the west side of San Juan Island and elsewhere in the islands and Strait of Juan de Fuca;
  • Continue studying the problem of pinniped predation on Chinook or begin a pilot program to immediately start removing the haul-outs of salmon-eating harbor seals, or both, as well as continue pushing the federal government for more management options to deal with sea lions in the Columbia and its tribs;
  • Reclassify walleye and bass as invasive, which would remove the “game fish” designation and subsequent rules against wastage;
  • Study whether altering the McNary Pool’s elevation would reduce the numbers of salmonid smolt-eating fish in the reservoir;
  • Develop a better understanding of Puget Sound forage fish populations;
  • Support Chinook reintroduction into the Upper Columbia and prioritize removing fish passage barriers that would benefit stocks elsewhere;
  • And continue to be involved in the conversation surrounding what to do with the four dams on the lower Snake River to varying degrees.

A HARBOR SEAL STEALS A CHINOOK OFF THE END OF AN ANGLER’S LINE IN THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS. (HUGH ALLEN)

There are many more, including potential recommendations addressing habitat, hydropower operations, contaminants and marine vessels.

The task force was convened earlier this year when the governor signed an executive order directing state agencies to begin doing what they could to help out the orcas, which are struggling due to lack of Chinook and other factors.

WDFW STAFFER EDWARD ELEAZER PARTICIPATED IN A TRIAL TO SEE WHETHER IT WAS POSSIBLE TO FEED AILING ORCA J50, NOW PRESUMED DEAD. A LACK OF CHINOOK IS STARVING LOCAL PODS. (KATY FOSTER/NOAA/FLICKR)

Since members of the panel — which includes Puget Sound Anglers’ Ron Garner, the Northwest Marine Trade Association’s George Harris, Long Live the Kings’ Jacques White, WDFW’s Brad Smith and Amy Windrope, tribal members and legislators Rep. Brian Blake and Sen. Kevin Ranker — began meeting two whales have died, including a newborn and a three-year-old adding urgency to the mission.

Some ideas did not make the cut from the working groups, but near the end of the public survey a question asks if they would otherwise be part of your top five strategies.

Those include further reducing fishing time in the Straits and San Juans in summer; coming up with a limited-entry recreational fishing permit system for key orca foraging areas; increasing WDFW’s hydraulic code enforcement budget; working with the Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad on habitat work along the tracks as they run up Puget Sound; and pushing for the Corps of Engineers to quit the four dams on the lower Snake and then take them out, among others.

Washington Bass, Walleye In Crosshairs For Orca Recovery?

Smallmouth, largemouth, walleye and other popular but nonnative gamefish species might one day be reclassified as invasive in Washington, a proposal meant to help out the prey of struggling killer whales but one that would further alienate warmwater anglers who already feel like the state’s redheaded stepchildren.

A POTENTIAL RECOMMENDATION BY WASHINGTON’S ORCA TASK FORCE COULD PUT A CHILL ON WALLEYE, A NONNATIVE SPECIES THAT ALSO CONSUMES CHINOOK AND OTHER SALMONID SMOLTS WHILE PROVIDING EXCELLENT FISHING OPPORTUNITIES IN FALL, LATE WINTER AND SPRING ON THE COLUMBIA NEAR TRI-CITIES. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

A Seattle TV station got ahold of that and other draft recommendations that Governor Jay Inslee’s state orca task force has developed ahead of their Monday, Sept. 24 release for public comment.

According to KCPQ, “Prey Potential Recommendation 27” calls on Inslee to support adding bass, walleye, catfish, perch and more to a list that includes northern pike, several species of carp and northern snakeheads.

The idea is “to allow and encourage removal of these predatory fish in the waters containing salmon or other ESA-listed species,” according to documents that reporter Brett Cihon cites.

The papers state:

“Walleye in the Columbia River are reported to consume more than two juvenile salmon daily while bass are reported to consume more than one juvenile salmon per day. There are likely millions of these non-native predatory fish in Washington waters, including Lake Washington and other water bodies, containing salmon. Twenty-four million salmon smolts are consumed by these non-native species between McNary Dam and Priest Rapids dam.”

It wasn’t clear where the reported figures originated, but walleye do now occur throughout much of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, as well as many Columbia Basin reservoirs and lakes.

These waters are so rich with forage – and not just salmonid smolts but young shad, perch, catfish and squawfish, according to guides quoted in a Northwest Sportsman article during last winter’s trophy fishery period – that anglers come from the home of walleye, the Upper Midwest, to try and catch fish into the high teens if not set a new state or world records, or at least personal bests.

Bass are simply everywhere, in lakes and slower, warmer rivers across the state, and support a number of fishing tournaments.

A 2011 paper KCPQ cited captured the dichotomy between the species’ value to anglers and fisheries and its danger to native fish. Researchers said there were 75,000 smallmouth bass anglers in Washington in 2006, or 14 percent of the state’s fishermen, and they spent 1.1 million days afield to the tune of $32.6 million in economic activity.

Those figures were also mostly below 1996 levels in not only Washington but Oregon and Idaho. The paper suggested site-specific regulations for areas of known salmonid smolt concentrations.

Since it came out, Washington and Oregon have moved to liberalize walleye, bass and catfish regulations, dropping size and daily limits on the Columbia and its tributaries, after pressure from federal overseers to show the states are doing something to reduce predation on ESA-listed salmon and steelhead smolts.

But now the focus is on orcas and their prey. Fall Chinook from the Lower Columbia and its tribs, as well as the Hanford Reach and Snake River, along with spring and summer king stocks from the Cowlitz, Kalama and Idaho rivers were found to be among the most important to southern resident killer whales, according to a new analysis out earlier this summer.

Anglers are being paid to remove northern pikeminnows, a native but numerous species that have benefited from the damming of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and they’re also getting cash to cut off the heads of northern pike in Lake Roosevelt.

KCPQ also reported that among other potential recommendations, the task force suggests removing three smaller dams on the Middle Fork Nooksack, Pilchuck and Naches Rivers; support efforts in Congress to make it easier to remove sea lions from more Lower Columbia Basin waters; establish a “no white-water wake” within half a mile of orcas; and develop a new limited-entry whale-watch boat permit program.

Some observers of the process are reported to feel that the measures aren’t strong enough or that their effects are too short-term.

Fish Commissioner Calls For Sharp Increase In Chinook Production For Orcas

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.

A PUGET SOUND ADULT CHINOOK SALMON SWIMS THROUGH THE BALLARD LOCKS. (NMFS)

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.

IN A SCREEN GRAB FROM C-SPAN 3, DONALD McISAAC SPEAKS BEFORE A CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE IN JANUARY 2014. (C-SPAN)

“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.

A PAIR OF SOUTHERN RESIDENT KILLER WHALES SWIM IN INLAND WATERS EARLIER THIS MONTH. (KATY FOSTER/NOAA FISHERIES)

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.

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

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.”

KIRAN WALGAMOTT PEERS INTO THE RACEWAYS AT THE WALLACE SALMON HATCHERY NEAR GOLD BAR. THE FACILITY REARS COHO, SUMMER CHINOOK AND STEELHEAD. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

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 commission@wdfw.wa.gov.

And McIsaac asked them to also talk with “friends in the conservation community” to increase awareness of the issue.

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.

With Orcas In Mind, WA Salmon Hatchery Reform Policy Under Review

Three principles dictating salmon hatchery operations in Washington have been suspended by the Fish and Wildlife Commission during a policy review, a move in part reflecting a “change in attitude” about production practices.

It comes as the state begins to respond in earnest to the plight of southern resident orcas — one of which was reported missing and presumed dead over the weekend, bringing Puget Sound’s population to its lowest point in 30 years.

KIRAN WALGAMOTT PEERS INTO THE RACEWAYS AT THE WALLACE SALMON HATCHERY NEAR GOLD BAR. THE FACILITY REARS SUMMER CHINOOK, COHO AND STEELHEAD. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

“I’m afraid that a lot of potential sites where there could be Chinook enhancement to increase the prey base for killer whales will be disqualified by our own policy,” said Commissioner Don McIsaac of Hockinson, in Clark County, during Friday’s meeting of the citizen panel.

In mid-March, Governor Jay Inslee issued an executive order directing WDFW to increase hatchery production of king salmon, the primary feedstock for resident orcas and the lack of which could be leading to their low reproduction rates.

Vessel traffic and pollution have also been identified as problems.

Saying that after 10 years it was time for a review, McIsaac made the motion to suspend the first three tenets of the commission’s CR 3619, Hatchery and Fishery Reform Policy, including using guidance from the Hatchery Scientific Review Group, and prioritizing broodstock from local watersheds.

He noted that genetic protections for wild Chinook would still be in place through Endangered Species Act restrictions.

“What I wouldn’t want to have anyone to believe is that this would be going back to what was characterized as the Johnny Appleseed days before of no hatchery constraints on operations,” McIsaac said. “We’re looking for good hatchery operations, and so what this is more about is just some slight differences here over the course of the next six months to allow for a good look at this and not to squelch any killer whale initiatives that are out there.”

IN A SCREEN GRAB FROM C-SPAN 3, DONALD McISAAC SPEAKS BEFORE A CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE IN JANUARY 2014. (C-SPAN)

He termed it “a change in attitude about our salmon hatchery policy” and indeed, his six- to 12-month review will look at results of those reforms, updating scientific knowledge and could include “changing language tone about the positive value of hatchery programs,” as well as consider adding mitigation facilities.

While Commissioner Kim Thorburn of Spokane expressed some concern about suspending portions of the policy, Commissioners Jay Holzmiller of Anatone and Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon voiced their support of it.

“I don’t want to blame anybody here, but what we’re doing now, and I’m not just speaking to HSRG … across the board simply isn’t working. It’s not working for businesses, it’s not working for individuals, it’s not working for state government. The money’s drying up, the salmon are drying up,” said Carpenter.

In 1989, the state, tribes, feds and others released 71 million Chinook; in 2016, just 33 million were, due in part to WDFW budget cuts over the years.

Yet even with ESA listings,  hatchery reforms and millions upon millions spent on habitat work, wild king numbers are still poor, suggesting something different is at play — perhaps density of harbor seals, according to a just-released paper, not releases of clipped Chinook.

“I simply have a forecast in my view that if we don’t make a change in our programs and methodology, that we don’t have more than 10 years left to have a salmon fishery of any kind — of any kind — in this state,” said Carpenter. “Let’s figure something out and get going on it.”

“Of any kind” surely was a reference to tribal fishing, and in a June 14 letter to Inslee, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission lent their considerable weight to the issue.

NWIFC Executive Director Justin Parker wrote that his organization wanted to work with the governor’s office to “develop an appropriate and accountable co-manager scientific review process at the same time that the HSRG’s role is phased out of the State budget language and process.”

Certain elements in WDFW’s appropriations are tied to HSRG.

He suggested that it lacks accountability and process, doesn’t undergo enough peer review scrutiny, diminishing its “credibility,” and is scientifically stagnant.

Where the 1970s’ Boldt Decision split the two fleets for decades, more and more, tribal and recreational fishermen are finding common cause. The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association supported the tribes and feds side against the state of Washington in the culvert case that came before the Supreme Court, and Puget Sound Anglers president Ron Garner recently had the extremely rare honor for a nontribal member — let alone a sport fisherman — of being invited to an NWIFC meeting.

“Over and over I was told, ‘It took some courage for you to come here today.’ It didn’t take courage,” said Garner during public comment last Friday afternoon on HSRG. “It took us running out of fish. We are running out of fish … We are so aligned on our problems it’s nuts. We understand them. It’s going to take us and the tribes to fix them.”

DON PITTWOOD SHOWS OFF A HATCHERY CHINOOK CAUGHT OFF WHIDBEY ISLAND’S POSSESSION POINT DURING THE SUMMER MARK-SELECTIVE FISHERY. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

Despite being the newest member of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, it’s the second major salmon-related shift McIsaac’s been involved with this year.

This past winter, with WDFW honchos folding to pressure from the National Marine Fisheries Service on Puget Sound Chinook management and which could have sharply curtailed already-reduced fisheries, he called for a conservation hatchery on a habitat-constrained river system, an example of thinking outside of the box rather than going along for the ride to ruin.

“Much more needs to be done outside of fishery restrictions,” he said at the time.

On Friday afternoon, in a voice vote on McIsaac’s salmon hatchery reform motion, no nays were heard. Afterwards, clapping from the audience could be.

Salmon Fishing Closures Announced In BC Waters Across From Washington

Canadian salmon managers have announced a series of closures and reduced Chinook limits in British Columbia saltwaters across from Washington and up the coast, bids to help out orca whales and conserve fish stocks.

A large swath of the northern half of the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Port Renfrew — opposite Neah Bay — to just west of Sooke — across from the Joyce area west of Port Angeles — will be closed to all salmon and finfish angling from June 1 to September 30.

(DFO)

Waters northwest of Orcas Island in the Gulf Islands and off the mouth of the Fraser River will also see Chinook closures.

(DFO)

“These measures include closures that will help increase the availability of this critical food source for southern resident killer whales,” the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said in a statement. “The closures will take place in three key foraging (feeding) areas.”

While the goal is to reduce fishing boat traffic, it wasn’t clear what might be being done about all the other vessels using the same waters.

DFO also announced that daily limits are being chopped in half on the north coast.

Overall, Canada’s two-pronged move aims to reduce commercial and recreational catches by 25 to 35 percent to boost numbers of kings returning to southern BC’s Fraser River and northern BC’s Skeena, Nass and other streams.

On the former front, it’s part of an international effort to help out struggling orcas.

(DFO)

It follows Washington’s closure of Chinook retention in the San Juan Islands in September, a good month to fish for Fraser-bound fish that are also preyed on by orcas.

WDFW also implemented new voluntary go-go zones along the west side of San Juan Island, a key feeding area for the giant marine mammals, but which were panned by a local angler as a feel-good move that doesn’t address root causes of the orcas’ plight — too few Chinook anymore.

DFO’s moves were also met with skepticism from the Sport Fishing Institute of BC.

“It is clear to see that decisions have been made to appear as though they will make a significant difference to the recovery of SRKW although there is little or no evidence of this,” the organization said in a statement. “While the recreational community has indicated a willingness to participate in measures that can lead to recovery of Chinook (and SRKW), the measures announced today are much more restrictive than the department itself explained was necessary to satisfy conservation objectives.”

SFI said that habitat, predator and “strategic enhancement” work for Fraser Chinook has “gone no where (sic)” and asked whether DFO really thought it could restore runs through the “now tiny exploitation rate associated with recreational fishing? Chinook and all those that depend on them deserve solutions and investment.”

Reacting to the developments, Nootka Marine, located further up the west coast of Vancouver Island from the closure zone, tweeted out a link to regulations for Nootka Sound and Esperanza Inlet.

DFO says the Straits, Gulf and Fraser mouth closures will be monitored “to assess the effectiveness.”

A WDFW official says besides the state’s closing of September Chinook retention and the voluntary stay-away areas, no more fishing measures to benefit orcas are anticipated to be implemented this year.