Last year, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) released 137 million salmon from its hatcheries, the lowest production year ever for the state agency followed by 2017’s 145 million. However, the agency is proposing to boost production of salmon over the next two years at 23 hatchery facilities by 24 million as part of an overall strategy to aid the Southern Resident killer whale population.
The state agency’s proposal to the state legislature includes a $6.35 million funding request in the operating budget and corresponds with one of the recommendations made by the state’s Southern Resident Killer Whale task force set up by Governor Jay Inslee.
The task force hosted several working group meetings throughout the state last year to examine short-term and long-term strategies to increase the number of Southern Resident orcas, which were classified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005. Between 1995-2003, their numbers fell by 16 percent and now less than 80 remain.
One of the causes attributed to their dwindling population is an insufficient supply of salmon, which makes up 80-90 percent of the orca’s diet. Last year’s production represents half of the 275 million salmon released by the agency in 1989 (page 6). WDFW’s proposal notes that production has fallen “due to funding reductions and new hatchery reform policies.”
Under its proposal, WDFW would increase production of chinook by 15.7 million, coho by 2.98 million and chum by 5.5 million. The plan dovetails well with the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s vote in September to increase chinook production by 50 million beyond 2018 levels.
Already, WDFW plans to release seven million more salmon at those facilities this year thanks to a $837,000 appropriation in last year’s supplemental capital budget. Roughly 40 percent of the total new salmon produced would occur at six hatchery facilities on the coast, including Forks Creek, Humptulips and Nemah.
Washington Policy Center Environmental Director Todd Myers told Lens that WDFW’s proposal “is one of the few actions that we can take that provides prey for orca in the near term. Since production has declined consistently over the last several years, it’s a policy that make sense.”
WDFW operates 83 hatchery facilities, 80 percent of which produce salmon and/or steelhead.
The proposal was reviewed by NOAA Fisheries and the Hatchery Scientific Review Group. NOAA Fisheries report noted that increased chinook salmon would benefit Southern Resident orcas most but added that the federal agency needs additional information in order to properly assess risks to wild salmon (Appendix 8). A similar concern was noted by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group’s report (Appendix 7).