Restoring salmon runs, not politics, will save southern resident killer whales

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.

Hatchery fish will not do the job of nature — the fish are produced in factories for human harvest at great cost, and if they return to natural spawning beds they dilute the finely adapted genetics of the native wild salmon. Furthermore, by continuing a factory-fish harvest economy that is ecologically absurd, they are further risking by-catch of natural wild salmon that have co-evolved for millennia with the fish-eating whales.

Of course, the whales will eat some hatchery fish when they mature, but these fish are typically much smaller than natural wild adults and yield significantly less caloric “catch per unit effort.” Unfortunately, there is economic incentive in the form of license and permit fees for the state to continue this practice of “stocking the pond.”

I do not know whether it is a diversionary tactic encouraged by special interests, but I am particularly dismayed to see that the findings of my 42 years of study of the whales are being misused to support emotional and irrational anti-whale watching agendas that realistically are of no benefit to the survival of these beloved Pacific Northwest icons. Such emotions have not added one more fish to the ecosystem, and never will.

The southern resident killer whales are supremely adapted to feed upon schools of large nutritious Chinook salmon, and they have done so as these prey populations have flourished and waned in abundance and distribution, seasonally, annually and even through climate changes. Being top predators, the southern resident population size is prey limited, and the whales must travel great distances year-round to find suitable abundance of prey destined for the many rivers along the eastern North Pacific coast. Traveling in extended family pods, they often return to areas of significant abundance of Chinook “feeders” in the ocean and 3- to 8-year-old Chinook “spawners” making their terminal migration runs to rivers where they hatched. Big runs of big fish were particularly attractive to the whales.

The Salish Sea Chinook runs, each with different abundance and timing, formerly attracted the whales to Puget Sound for brief visits during most months of the year. The whales seldom stayed in one place for long, and they did not take most of the fish — whereas people often did. In the 1970s and 1980s, most of the southern resident population was around or near the San Juan Island archipelago and Puget Sound virtually every day from May through September following the salmon runs. They routinely showed up for Seafair in Elliot Bay each summer. Where are they now? They are feeding in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington state on the remnant runs of Chinook from other rivers. The southern residents did not come here to see people, though they tolerated and entertained them regally.

It should be apparent to everybody by now that the millions of dollars spent on enforcement of well-meaning arbitrary regulations and etiquette are in fact useless efforts for protecting whales that are not here. This was pointed out at the governor’s Orca Task Force last year, along with a recommendation that the focus of investments to save the southern resident whales should be toward restoration of the potentially most productive natural wild populations of Chinook salmon from the major rivers that connect to the marine habitat, e.g., the Columbia, Snake and Fraser Rivers.

I recommended starting with returning natural flow conditions to the Snake River to allow for millions of baby salmon to hatch in the pristine upper reaches of the river. That cost-effective project alone could save the whales from extinction, and it is acknowledged to be the only alternative left for the recovery of what formerly was the mainstay of the most productive salmon river in the world.