The dependency of Southern Resident killer whales on endangered Chinook salmon for their diet means the recovery efforts for both species are in many ways intertwined. As a state task force looks at ways to aid their fledging populations, some members argue that the best way to help the killer whales is by ramping up Chinook hatchery production while protecting them against predators who have accelerated consumption levels over the last 40 years.
A 2017 study published by the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences concluded that between 1970-2015, the amount of Chinook salmon consumed by seals increased from 68 to 625 metric tons. By 2015, seals were consuming twice as much salmon as killer whales and six times more than that caught by commercial, tribal and recreational anglers combined.
“As more protected species respond positively to recovery efforts, managers should attempt to evaluate tradeoffs between these recovery efforts and the unintended ecosystem consequences of predation and competition on other protected species,” the study abstract states.
One approach proposed is to restock the Chinook salmon supply by releasing 50 million more Chinook for southern resident killer whales. It was a plan unveiled by Fish and Wildlife Commission member Don McIsaac at an Aug. 27 meeting, in which 30 million would be released in four sections of Puget Sound and 20 million from Columbia River hatcheries.
It’s an idea backed by some members of the state task force, including Puget Sound Anglers President Ron Garner. At the task force’s Aug. 28 meeting he said “if we’re serious about trying to save this, it’s ready to go. We’ve just got to have the funding to do it, and we’ve got to ask the governor to get it done. If we’re going to seriously fix this, we got to go the other way.
“Our salmon are on life support and they don’t have a lot of time to come up with something,” he said. “The salmon are the life support of the killer whales. If we can’t fix the salmon, we’re going to be kissing the killer whales goodbye. And time isn’t on our side.”
The proposal is grander than one found in a bipartisan House bill introduced during this year’s legislative session by Rep. Brian Blake (D-19), one of the task force members. HB 2417 would have given the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife $1.55 million to increase production of Chinook and other salmon by 10 million. The bill cleared the Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources but got stuck in Appropriations.
The task force is currently working on a draft proposal of initial recommendations to make to Governor Jay Inslee on how to increase the Southern Resident killer whale population. Among the long-term ideas under consideration and discussed at the Aug. 27 meeting was the proposal to remove dams in the state that impede salmon recovery. That includes the lower Snake River Dams that provide around eight percent of electricity in Washington and would require federal authorization. Endangered Chinook salmon pass through those dams; following billions spent by the Army Corps of Engineers in fish passage upgrades, the latest update from Inslee’s office shows that Snake River fall Chinook salmon are approaching their recovery goals, while Snake River spring and summer Chinook are showing “signs of progress.”
The work group within the task force charged with examining the issue recommended pushing for the removal of three dams, including ones on the Pilchuck and Naches Rivers that have already received local authorization. The work group also recommended examining other remaining dams and getting a prioritized list of what would most benefit Chinook, based in part on their recovery plans.
The NOAA Fisheries biological opinion and its recovery plans for Chinook salmon concluded that breaching the Snake River dams was not necessary for the recovery of either Chinook or killer whales. A 2010 study also found that between 2004-2008, 80-90 percent of Chinook salmon consumed by killer whales originated from the Fraser River in British Columbia.
Any recommendation by the task force to breach the dams would also have to account for the new environmental impact statement (EIS) analysis that is required via court order to consider that option. A final EIS is expected by 2021.
Other potential recommendations from the task force include “slow zones” with a maximum speed of five knots within one kilometer of orcas while limiting the number of whale watching vessels on a given day. The draft proposal will be released Sept. 24.