The following sentence, tucked in a footnote of a white paper the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife prepared last winter, may hold the key to the health of the southern resident population of killer whales.
“Releases of Chinook salmon from hatchery facilities in Puget Sound grew from about 50 million in 1979-82 to about 80 million in 1989 and declined from that point to less than 40 million in recent years.”
Already this year, the state Legislature has funded the release of 24 million more hatchery-raised Chinook smolts as a way to replace some of those lost to production cutbacks in recent decades.
Increasing hatchery production of Chinook salmon in the region is a logical step in addressing the concern over the health of the killer whale population, which appears to be undernourished. Providing adequate amounts of food only makes sense. Some 80% of the food the killer whales eat is Chinooks.
The killer whale population, which spends much of its time at the northern end of the busy Puget Sound in Washington state, is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. It peaked at 98 killer whales in 1995 and now has 73, the same level it was about 30 years ago.
Interestingly, the peak in the killer whale population roughly parallels the peak in hatchery releases of Chinook into Puget Sound.
The goal of a Washington state task force on the killer whales is to reverse the population decline and begin to grow it.
In addition to producing more food for the killer whales, the task force notes that other steps have also been taken, including passage of federal legislation that better controls the population of protected sea lions that prey on Chinook salmon, replacing substandard culverts that Chinook use to spawn and controlling other species of fish such as northern pike that prey on salmon.
All of which makes sense. We still maintain that adequate production of Chinook by state and tribal hatcheries is the most important step.
Unfortunately, the task force also makes a leap from fisheries management into managing the state’s economy, supposedly for the benefit of killer whales. Among the ideas are reducing the state’s carbon emissions to zero by the year 2050 and channeling the state’s population growth in ways that result in “net ecological gain.”
Neither idea has anything to do with killer whales or their welfare.
The task force also proposes a new Orca Recovery Office to monitor the situation. This apparently supposes that more bureaucrats will do the feeding.
The task force’s goal is to increase the killer whale population by 10 during the next 10 years. This can be done, if the task force, state legislators and others keep their focus on providing enough Chinook salmon so the killer whales can thrive.
Other than making sure the killer whales are well-fed and out of harm’s way, it’s hard to see how any of these other steps will help in any tangible way.