Chinook salmon swimming

Chinook salmon have been in short supply. Washington state has announced plans to make an allocation of Chinook for a struggling population of orcas, otherwise known as Southern Resident Killer Whales.

OLYMPIA — The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted last week in support of fishery managers’ plans to consider the dietary needs of endangered orcas when they set this year’s salmon-fishing seasons.

At this point, it remains unknown exactly what this will mean for salmon seasons in the Lower Columbia River and adjacent marine waters. Spring Chinook are a particular favorite of orcas, and also are highly prized by recreational and commercial fishermen.

Besides immediately adjusting salmon catches to leave more fish for the orcas, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to seek legislative support to increase salmon production at state hatcheries by 24 million fish during the next two years. In the following two years — the state's 2021-23 spending period — WDFW wants to ratchet-up salmon production to 50 million fish.

The WFW commission, a citizen panel appointed by the governor to set policy for WDFW, adopted its new orca-friendly policies at a public meeting Jan. 11-12 in Olympia.

The commission also instructed WDFW to take steps to protect southern resident killer whales (SRKW) from disruptions from fishing vessel traffic.

This group of orcas, which has long been considered iconic in Puget Sound, spends months each year on the state's outer coast, Oregon and Northern California. Depending on salmon availability, they sometimes spend weeks hunting for salmon in the vicinity of the Columbia River entrance. SRKW orcas don't eat other marine mammals.

The declining availability of salmon – SRKW’s primary prey – and disruptions from boating traffic have both been linked to a downturn in the region’s orca population over the past 30 years.

Ron Warren, head of WDFW’s Fish Program, welcomed the new policy, noting that the department has been working to address those issues for several years.

“While state fishing seasons have long been subject to federal review, this new policy confirms that WDFW must play a leading role in orca recovery,” Warren said. “This year we plan to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop new tools to assess the effects of fisheries on available prey for endangered orcas.”

Consistent with the recommendations of the state’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, WDFW is also seeking state funding to:

• Beef up WDFW patrols that enforce boating regulations to protect orcas.

• Improve habitat essential for salmon survival.

Legislative actions

Gov. Jay Inslee introduced an executive order last year establishing the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, directing state agencies to develop a long-term plan for recovering the species. After months of deliberation and input from the public, the task force developed 36 recommendations aimed at increasing the local population from 74 to 84 orcas over the next decade.

Also included in the proposal is $1.1 billion to fund orca and Chinook conservation in the state budgets.

Resident orcas are one of three main types of orcas found in Puget Sound.

“The whale is symbolically very important,” Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, chair of the Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee, said in a telephone interview. “And part of our identity as a state.”

The recommendations support the task force’s four broad goals: Increasing the supply of Chinook salmon, one of the resident orcas’ primary food sources; decreasing disturbances and noise caused by watercraft; reducing toxic exposure, both for Orcas and their food supply; and increasing funding and information to support recovery efforts going forward.

Ten of the recommendations require legislation, including proposals to increase prosecution of violations of habitat and water quality regulations, strengthening existing law that protects the Chinook, developing incentives to encourage voluntary actions to protect orcas, and hiring a third party to establish a stakeholder process to consider the possibility of breaching or removing lower Snake River dams.

“We know that we’ve changed our environment, our ecosystem, over the last century and a half, dramatically, across the state of Washington,” Inslee said in a press conference last week. “And we will need to do many things to give the orcas a shot of survival.”

Orca-watching suspension

One of the proposals includes a three-year temporary suspension on all southern resident orca whale watching, as well as a minimum 400-yard distance from orcas and a “go slow” zone for all vessels within a half nautical mile of the mammals.

Rep. Drew MacEwan, R-Union, is a member of the task force. Although he recognizes the importance of the orcas in the region and agrees with some of the task force’s proposals, including salmon production, he said that Olympia sometimes overlooks the needs of small businesses.

“Some proposals are not thoroughly vetted,” he said. “Our work is not done. We need to continue to move forward.”

At least one whale-watching business says it is already taking measures not to disturb the mammals. Pete Hanke, the owner of Port Townsend-based Puget Sound Express, said resident orcas are just one type of whale his roughly 30,000 annual visitors can see on one of his tours. There are also Bigg’s orcas, offshore orcas, minkes, and humpback whales, seals and other wildlife that attract ecotourists.

Hanke said his newest ship is exceptionally quiet and the state Department of Fish & Wildlife sends officers to enforce existing whale-protecting regulations.

“I think we’re all on the same team,” Hanke said. “I just think it’s how we get to the right outcome that’s a concern.”

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