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As Lummis Pitch Increased Chinook Releases For Orcas, Hatchery Opponents Dig In

In what’s billed as “a simple idea to save orcas,” the Lummi Nation wants to rear and release Chinook from one or more sea pens in the San Juan Islands.

The salmon would be grown to provide more forage for the starving southern residents in a key feeding area for them.

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

“The orcas eat hatchery fish. We eat hatchery fish. Not because it’s what we wanted — it’s something we’re forced into,” Jeremiah Julius, Lummi Indian Business Council chairman, told Bitterroot, an online magazine. “To think that wild salmon are going to come back in the next decade in the numbers that are needed to stop the extinction of orcas is foolish.”

A not unattractive likely side benefit would be more fish for fishermen who are also suffering the same fate as the whales, too few kings.

In the lengthy article, Jake Bullinger reports that the Lummis’ 2019 goal is to identify money for the project and places to park the pens.

The nation considers orcas to be their “relatives under the waves,” and the lack of Chinook is also being felt by tribal and nontribal fishermen alike.

If the Lummis’ idea seems vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s basically an echo of what WDFW and British Columbia anglers already do.

The state agency delays the release of some of its Puget Sound hatchery Chinook production to stave off the urge of the salmon to migrate to the North Pacific, providing the resident “blackmouth” fishery, while since 2017 the South Vancouver Island Angler’s Coalition in Sooke has released half a million smolts annually, and aims to put out 2 million in the coming years.

(Long Live The Kings also raises and releases 750,000 kings from Glenwood Springs on Orcas Island.)

“If there’s lots of fish out there, we’re not going to be fighting who gets the fish between commercial, recreational, and First Nations. And if we put more fish out there, there will be enough food for the killer whales to survive and thrive,” the coalition’s Christopher Bos told Bullinger.

How the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has become very invested in orca recovery, feels about the Lummis’ idea is unclear, as is whether there’s enough forage in the inland sea for more Chinook (though not in Deep South Sound, where anchovy populations are booming).

KAITLYN CAMPION SHOWS OFF A 22-POUND HATCHERY CHINOOK CAUGHT IN THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS 2014. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

But it’s all a more “proactive” approach, in Bos’s words, than what some are pushing at this moment:

To be brutally honest, allowing the orcas (and fisheries) to shrivel by keeping their thumb on their best short-term hope we have in our radically altered environment — boosting hatchery production — because it “could undermine recovery efforts for wild chinook and the needed rebuilding of runs throughout their historic range, their size and age structure, and the run-timing that the whales evolved with.”

Per the rest of that Vancouver Sun opinion piece by a Wild Fish Conservancy staffer and others last weekend, increasing Chinook would just lead to higher fishing intensity and catch of wild stocks, and they say that mixed-stock fisheries should be closed and foraging areas should be set aside instead.

And yesterday in The Seattle Times, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research argued, “The only real solution for reversal of the downhill trend in Chinook salmon size and abundance, and for the southern resident killer whale population, is to recover the natural wild runs of Chinook and their supporting ecosystems as soon as possible.”

Yet even as hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on critically needed salmon habitat restoration, “At the pace we’re recovering estuaries, it will take 90 years to achieve the goals of the recovery plan,” tribal biologist Eric Beamer told KUOW last fall in a story focusing on Washington’s best, most intact watershed, the Skagit.

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

Inside fisheries have also been reduced “at great cost” as much as 90 percent, but wild Chinook numbers are just not rebuilding because they are limited by their freshwater spawning and rearing habitat’s capacity to do so.

Don’t get me wrong, there will never ever be a morning I wake up and say, “You know what, to hell with fixing this gigantic ass mess we’ve made from the ridgetops to bathymetric depths.”

My dying breath will be, “It’s the habitat, stupid.” (And I won’t just be talking about salmon.)

But the Only-this-very-special-magic-pixie-dust-will-work approach of the anti-hatchery brigade just isn’t helpful or realistic.

Ideas like increasing Chinook abundance, done right, will provide a key bridge to when the habitat can once again support the kind of numbers J, K and L Pods need right now.

Let’s get to work.

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