Orcas and Salmon – What We Have Learned

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Over the past two months, we have been looking fairly closely into what can be done to enhance salmon populations to assure the continued survival of the locally endangered Southern Resident orcas, the familiar J,K, and L pods.

Photo credit: The Center for Whale Research

Most estimates put the number of Chinook salmon that will be required to sustain these whales at about one to two million fish each year. This is a large number, but doable if we act promptly, and restoring salmon for the orcas will also make sure that we save wild populations of those fish for ourselves, as well as for over one hundred other species that utilize them.
I personally want to thank all of you who have contributed to this discussion and educated me right along with everyone else on these complex salmon issues. Although I was unable to fit in all of the pertinent remarks, I have have summarized the gist of the comments and contributions below.
This process has underscored to me how open and willing those of us who live in this region are to pitch in and look for resolution when it comes to salmon and orcas, a subject where the potential for conflict is high. Our personal lifestyles and regional self-interests are deeply challenged as we weigh the needs of the whales against our own – yet what has become clear is that we are unified in a desire to “get ‘er done”. The Obijwa Indians have a saying; “No tree has branches so foolish as to fight amongst themselves”, and I think we have begun to learn that lesson well.
I think we may also be learning that our politicians are likely underestimating both the will and the unity of this community, and I have a hunch we’ll be dealing with new faces in the Senate soon if they don’t wise up and at least communicate as to what they can and will do to salvage salmon populations, and consequently much of what makes our way of life here in the Pacific Northwest unique.
Listed below are the subjects we discussed along with notes on others, and I hope you will draw your own conclusions from the thoughtful input (please note that the comments are taken out of context and abbreviated below, but are available in full with the linked articles, listed adjacent to this column):
1) Dam removal:

Howard Garrett (author of the series on orcas and salmon): “Most scientists agree that removal of the four lower Snake River dams would result in a big rebound of wild salmon that spawn there, along with a full range of wildlife and Puget Sound’s resident J, K and L orca whale pods.”
“But a “Biological Opinion” (BiOp), written by the Bush administration, would allow dam operation until 2018 despite the dam’s devastating effects on endangered salmon. Along with salmon disaster, the BiOp will lead to likely extinction of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which depend on some of these same salmon for their survival.”
“14 leading researchers wrote NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco pointing out shortcomings in the BiOp and seeking reconsideration. Their letter concluded, “The recovery of Southern Resident Killer Whales depends on abundant food, which will be difficult, if not impossible, to provide without restoring productivity from the Columbia Basin.”
“This BiOp is mostly about securing hydropower, and not salmon, in the Columbia/Snake watershed. It really is more concerned with electricity than anything else.”
Drais4: “According to NOAA, non-tribal in-river fishing on the Columbia takes less than 3% of Snake River spring/summer chinook, Snake River steelhead, Upper Columbia steelhead, Upper Columbia spring chinook, and Snake River sockeye,; the federal dams’ “harvest” of the downstream runs of the same species, by comparison, averages 49%, 51%, 53%, 33% (for some reason Snake River sockeye is N/A). The dams take another 6 to 20% of returning adults. Source: 2004 Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion, Table 10.3. And as Mr. Sudar notes, while fishing quotas keep going down, the fish populations don’t rebound, suggesting that the harvest, while clearly one piece of the puzzle, is not the primary factor in their decline.”
Joel Kawahara: “…without Columbia River Chinook stocks, the State of Washington has almost no possibility of commercial harvest of chinook salmon. The economic losses from lost chinook runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers are difficult to calculate. However, a 1949 article from the Washington Department of Fisheries states about $9 Million worth of salmon would be lost with the completion of the Snake River dams. I just looked up the CPI change in value and come up with a factor of 9… meaning about $81 Million in fish, using a 3:1 expansion for economic impact and the lost economic impact of those fish is $240 million.”
Fishmonger: The four Snake River dams in question went in between 1960 and 1975. There was a noticeable drop in salmon production as each dam went in. They were primarily built for navigation, to make Lewiston, Idaho a port with access to the ocean. They provide irrigation to about a dozen farms and I believe about 10% of the power on the BPA grid. It has been estimated that the benefits can be replaced by modified pumping to the farms, improved railroads and highways for shipping, and conservation.
All of the dams cause mortalities to smolts as they migrate downriver, and to adults as they travel back upstream. There is only so much that can be done to improve that. For most dams, it’s a 10-20% loss going down, and 5-10% loss for adults going back up. The smolts need to travel in a specifc time frame or their physical adjustment from fresh to salt water will be unsuccessful. They point upstream as they go downriver, so it’s not like they are looking for the best way – they depend on high river flows to move them, and we don’t use the water for power at the same times that the smolts need it. That’s why it’s a battle with the dam operators to get them to spill water.
Snake River wild Chinook stocks aren’t continuing to crash, but improvements have been slow and inconsistent and there are probable limitations to how much recovery can be achieved with the dams there. There is also the continuing battle with BPA regarding spill to move smolts downriver, which has been a big factor in recent improvements.”

2) Further limit harvest:

Drais4: “The topic of harvest impacts on salmon fisheries is obviously nightmarishly complicated, even without the politics. But to keep it in perspective, think about this: NOAA’s 2004 Columbia River BiOp shows that dam-related mortality to Upper Columbia and Snake River salmon ranges from 33 percent to 86 percent (yes, 86 percent) of juveniles going downstream, and from 6% to 17% of adults returning. The numbers vary according to species and run.
Conversely, in-river non-tribal fishing ranges from .5% to 2% for all runs but Snake River fall chinook, which is 8.25%. (I don’t have numbers for in-river tribal fishing; don’t know if NOAA does). Ocean fishing (including tribal and non-tribal) is 1 percent or less except for Snake River fall chinook, which is 20% to 30%.
This is not to say that harvest limits are unimportant or shouldn’t be scrutinized. The fact is, they HAVE been scrutinized, and reduced repeatedly – while the dams keep killing huge numbers of fish. Fixing the dam problem would provide an enormously greater improvement to the chinook population than continued ratcheting down of harvest limits.
Fishmonger: “…The largest Chinook fishery in the state may occur in the Columbia in some years if you include sport, Indian and non-Indian commercial harvests, but that’s partly because the Columbia is a Chinook river. In addition, those are the last harvests, not the first, so Orcas have access to them before the in-river fishermen. All fisheries are based on run predictions and sharing ratios that take into account ESA limitations, stock mixing, ocean harvest (from both sport and commercial fisheries), treaty rights, etc. As I’ve stated before, harvest is the one thing that gets controlled, it is focused on stocks with harvestable numbers, and it’s not restricting stock recovery. If there is no harvest, there will not be any hatchery production, either, and we will lose advocates for salmon restoration, which would be just fine with BPA.

3) Better control of bycatch:

Fishmonger: “The only way to tell a wild fish from a hatchery fish is if the fleshy adipose fin just ahead of the tail is missing. This fin is removed at the hatchery on about 75%-90% of the salmon raised in hatcheries in the northwest, depending on the run. Tribal hatcheries don’t “clip” nearly as many fish as the state hatcheries do.
Fish can be released from all of the harvest methods, but their survival rate afterwards depends on how they are caught by the net or hook, the water temperature, how long they were trapped, how they are handled before release, and other factors. In addition, the mesh size of gillnets can be used to target specific species while avoiding others, as can time and area closures to avoid stocks of concern that may be in a specific area at a given time. I would say that purse seine and reefnet fish would have a high survival rate if they can be sorted and released before they suffocate or lose scales as their space is reduced in the net. Gillnet release success depends on how long the fish were in the net, how they were caught (it’s not always by the gills), how much scale loss and how cold the water is.
…As far as government support goes, there is no funding for new gear, though the government has contributed to gear studies, such as those that were used to determine mortality rates for tangle nets. The fishermen built the nets under the premise that if they improved their methods they would be allocated more fish. In reality, they made the changes but Fish and Wildlife has instead been reducing their harvest share over the past 8 years. There is no program in place that I know of that would fund boats and gear if a new method is required, but there is a study in place to see if some new proposed methods will work. It takes 5-10 years to successfully test the viability of new methods.
Protected fish that are caught be any non-Indian fisherman, whether sport or commercial, are released depending on the fishery location, the species, the time of year, and how many of the hatchery fish are marked so that they can be identified. It also depends on whether it’s a mixed stock fishery or one that is focused on a specific run bound for a known river system. More of the sport fisheries require release, but in some cases that is to extend the season rather than just protecting wild fish. Regardless, sampling is done to determine the ratio of wild/hatchery fish caught and that is used in determining when to close a fishery.
Commercial and sport fisheries have all made significant contributions toward salmon recovery because as I’ve mentioned before, they are the only user groups that the managers can effectively cut back to increase salmon survival – they have little effective control over municipal water use and quality, logging, mining, argiculture or similar issues that impact water and salmon. But both user groups can play a role in keeping the larger public aware of the special nature of the salmon resource in the Northwest, by being advocates for the resource and by making a portion of the resource available for the public to share and enjoy.”

4) Viability of hatchery fish:

Drais4: “The literature gets more compelling over the years. As NOAA puts it in two biological opinions, there is no evidence that a population consisting predominantly of hatchery fish can persist over the long term. Araki et al published a paper in June showing not only that captive-bred fish have much lower survival rates than wild fish – which is, I think, pretty widely accepted – but that the succeeding generations also have reduced reproductive success. That is, the if two hatchery fish produce surviving fish, and those fish breed, the likelihood of their producing viable fish is only 37 percent the likelihood of two “real” wild fish producing viable offspring. If a fish with a hatchery parent breeds with a “real” wild fish, the odds of success are only 87 per cent of a match of 2 “real” wild fish.
Araki’s conclusion: “Our results suggest a significant carry-over effect of captive breeding,
which has negative influence on the size of the wild population in the generation after supplementation.” So hatchery fish must be, it seems, a part of the short-term equation, but cannot be part of the long-term answer.

5) Climate change:
From the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group: “Global warming’s expected impact on PNW {Pacific NorthWest} climate includes many negatives for PNW salmon. Increased winter flooding and decreased summer and fall streamflows, and elevated warm season stream and estuary temperatures will clearly degrade in-stream and estuarine salmon habitat in the PNW. These changes will likely cause severe problems for the salmon stocks that are already stressed from already degraded freshwater and estuarine habitat.”

Drais4: “The genetic issue is especially important in light of climate change. Fish are, as we all know, quite sensitive to water temps. If water warms due to greenhouse gases, the best chance of survival might be for those fish who come from, and breed in, the highest-elevation spawning grounds (namely, Snake River/Central Idaho salmon). (Those fish also have evolved to swim 900 miles and 6000 vertical feet, suggesting they are tougher than your average Carkeek Park chum.) If we lose the high-elevation fish, though, and coastal waters rise and lower-elevation temps increase, we could find ourselves with very, very, very few salmon in the PNW.”

6) Habitat restoration:
In a US News and World Reports article (Tracking the Results of Salmon Habitat Restoration“) last April, It was shown that although we spend deeply on habitat restoration ( as much as 1 billion nationwide, annually) there is as yet no consistent way to monitor the success of the projects. It is heartening that these efforts are being made, and this is an area where each of us can contribute our time and energy to help.

BenStatic: “Salmon recovery is a difficult, multi-faceted problem, dams are one major component, fish farms (parasites and disease) are another, overfishing is another, river habitat and straightened rivers are another, warming rivers are another, siltification is another. There are some who are unwilling to work on any one issue, unless we do something on the others. We need to look at this as a piecemeal recovery effort, where any effort is movement in the right direction.”

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